Saturday, April 5, 2008

Was That Supposed To Mean Something?

by Paul Gordon Emerson

While we've been focusing on the evolution of Isabel's "Revolution of the Butterflies," there have been other things happening in the company. On Friday, April 4th CityDance had a performance in the studio for a group brought together by the Education Department at the Music Center at Strathmore (our Montgomery County home). Ostensibly, they were coming up to see us doing something related to the theme of their package -- Broadway. Except that we don't really do anything that has anything to do with Broadway other than that we all like going to it.

We opted to show "On A Train Heading South," the dance that is the bookend to Isabel's for our upcoming concert, "Warmer." As I've mentioned in earlier posts, "Train" takes a very different approach to the question of climate change. We picked "Train" because of its narrative line -- its sense of being a story with a beginning, middle and end. That led us to the idea that there are similarities between a musical and a modern dance. In this case the similarities were about story and the dissimilarities were in that our story had no words and a musical usually has a zillion of them to get you through and to the story. And that, in turn, led to the question everyone in modern dance has hanging over their heads whenever they set out to make a dance -- "was that supposed to mean something?" If you want a question that sends a chill into a choreographer, artistic or executive director or, perhaps most important, a potential patron, this is it. Our friend and colleague Gesel Mason has made a dance about it -- and its a brilliant take on how quickly an audience can, and usually will, get lost watching this stuff. Her take through "How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert" was to just go right at how obscure this can get even when the choreographer thinks he or she is being as clear as the water in Lake Tahoe (something that is apparently about to change due to algae growth in the lake because of, you guessed it, climate change -- hmmm, Lake Tahoe in a stunning, anaerobic green, now that's a realtor's dream).

The further into a field, whether art or inorganic chemistry, you get, the easier it is to forget that you are really just learning a language, and getting better and better at speaking that language. The fact that that excellence is taking you into very rarefied company is fine if you only intend to talk to people similarly skilled (think the annual convention of the American Society for Chemical Engineering, where I suspect a coffee order comes with a request for sugar in its chemical designations), and if your purpose is to investigate, and discuss, with people who are in the know the same way you are.

What happens, though, when your existence is predicated on communicating, not with the 10 people you work in a room with day in and day out, but with tens or thousands of people who have absolutely no experience with you and, more, who haven't spent 20 years learning how to "speak dance?"
You spend 6 weeks making a dance filled with an endless amount of "deep meaning" and concept, put it on the stage convinced that the audience will rise up at the end in celebration of all that you've said. And what happens? Someone at the reception, someone exceptionally well informed, bright, inquisitive and just a little bit poorer for having plunked down his or her money, sheepishly walks up to you and says, in a quiet undertone "I really enjoyed it, but....was that supposed to mean something?" At this moment you typically spend 20 minutes trying to explain your profound concept, turn the question back and ask "well, what did you think it meant?" which is pretty much the kiss of death most of the time, or you head for the bar.

Then you commiserate with colleagues about how "no one gets it." They share in your pain, 'cause they feel the same way. That would be the art world's road to hell. If we want people to come and share in an experience, then, at least in my view, we better meet them way more than halfway. Assuming that building an audience, expanding a love of an art form, communicating thoughts and ideas and creating a great and entertaining environment is a significant part of the point, then the transformation of how we get people the language skills to "speak dance" better be a key part of the conversation we have with ourselves, our colleagues and our marketing departments.

If its not, we should be content with tiny houses and low priced tickets, similarly tiny salaries, few returning patrons except those 50 devotees (and the families of the dancers), and a better come back to "was that supposed to mean something?" than Isadora Duncan's unfortunately famous phrase that "if she could explain what she meant, she wouldn't have had to make it." There are those who would argue, whatever her CV, that she didn't. Ordering dinner in a restaurant in a country where you don't speak the language and can't read the characters is fun and an adventure, despite the fact that you have no idea what you are about to eat, but it probably won't keep you alive very long.....

Time to find a Starbucks.


cecilia gonzalez said...

Es muy bueno saber de abundanza y de tus creaciones, quizás sería bueno que parte de la pagina fuera en español para poder saber mas de tus obras.FUERZA!!!!

Anonymous said...

The CityDance Ensemble dancers are immensely talented and amazing to watch. I always feel that I am in the presence of greatness both as I watch them perform and afterward. I hope to attend as many performances as possible of this dance company and have recently purchased tickets to Warmer.

With this said, let me admit that I have had the experience of asking myself: Was that supposed to mean something? Let’s take the Sonnet performance as an example. Some pieces I enjoyed without anything but the titles such as A. Maria and the duet. But let me admit that with a graduate degree (albeit not in the arts) and as an enthusiastic fan, I did not get On a Train Heading South, other than some obvious references. I was delighted to read in this well-written blog that the piece has a narrative line with a beginning, middle, and end – and that’s why you choose it. Why not write it up and make available as a program guide? Think about all the great classic ballets – even when we all already know the stories – Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet... – the program usually always retells the story and also indicates the setting of each scene, or even gives a summary of each act. I cannot imagine that this would be done unless it was to enhance the viewing experience. Why not in modern dance? There seems to be a taboo in modern dance (perhaps beginning/mirroring modern art) that to explain will either detract from what the experience is supposed to be, or if everything is good enough there should be no explanation necessary. This is a fatal error in thought, I believe. The converse can be true – even more so in modern dance -- to provide the audience with the story line and other interesting facts prior to a modern dance performance would greatly enhance the viewing experience for the majority. This in no way should be viewed as a cop-out or indicative of some failing on the part on the performers, choreographer, or artistic director. It doesn’t get better than the CityDance. If a narrative exists, why not let us know? We can choose whether or not to read it. A modern dance performance is usually a one time viewing for the audience members. It is not always comfortable sitting in an audience knowing that you’re watching greatness with amazingly talented dancers but, why can’t I get what it means?

To a cooler tomorrow.