road to the stomping ground
some thoughts on some thoughts on choreographing history
flamenco and native american dances
definition of dance
19 december, 1997
world dance forms
Road to the Stomping Ground
The aboriginal dance in this video was mostly shown in snippets - few pieces were titled or shown for more than a few minutes at a time.
The dancers seemed to be dancing in a group, but alone - there were times when their motions synchronized or responded to each other, but mosttimes they appeared to all be recieving the same instruction from on high, which they executed in the same space, mindful of eachother, but working out their instructions for themselves. Some kind of group mind at work.
Except the young, who were shown to be clearly responding to the steps of their elders.
Were their gestures communicative or combat evocative? The way they moved mystified me, in some large part due to the rarifed, jab quality of their leg movements. Their legs were so wild - so long and leaping, scrawny. Their costumes accentuated this - leaving their legs bare and scrawny to move.
Their poking at things in oddly painted groups of loincloth clad men struck me, as their vocabulary stands so dedicated, focused concentrated, and seemingly unadulterated.
they exposed the human form raw and naked - jiri kylian proposed getting at his dancers "inner animal," they moved as enlongated creatures. After his stated goal of non-imitation, of developing aboriginal inspired movement, I must say I admired his implementation and evocation of their forms, seemingly without direct rip-off (though I lack the vocabulary to say for sure). The dancers did spend markedly more time alone, or eventually in far smaller groups or communities than the aboriginals, and that removed some of what had been wonderous for me. In it's place was more studied isolated movement examples, and the sounds of toes brushing the mat.
The "Western Ballet" (of Balanchine?) transfixed me for it's delightful genre mixing - seeing the polite movements of the ballet folk in a western situation immediately toucded me. I was then compelled to watch it repeatedly, and I then recognized the skill involved.
The aborignal movement transfixed me as well, but I would have to say for it's rarity, or perhaps exoticism. It just seemed like alien transmission. And then I watched it further, and then I came to appreciate the intense shared tradition underlying the seemingly independent movements.
The aboriginals were far less staged than the ballet people - the setting was entirely different, movement in dust with paint on your body as opposed to paint only on your face. In that way, the fixity of the ballet situation seems more abstract, like a meta commentary both on the dance style and the western genre. On the other hand the aboriginal dance seemed perhaps some communication with higher powers. Both did point their legs, and leap some, however, and both employed costumage that revealed the length and slenderitity of their legs.
"What is Classicism?" - This chapter juxtaposed the writings of american newspaper columnists and a few Indonesians on the subject of a famous traditional Javanese court dance that was performed across America. The intensely broad range of writing styles and understandings herein illustrated both possibilities and pitfalls - useful to me at the outset of thinking about dance performance, especially performance of/from cultures with which I share little vocabulary. The author of the piece, Alastair Macaulay, lays himself bare at the beginning and refrains from commentating on the proceeding pieces - it is the contrast, the reading of one and then another of over a dozen pieces on the same piece that was illuminating.African Dance
In "On The Threshold Of A New Decade," Guillermo GÓmez-Peña offers what has been missing from many of the other essays: acute artistic vision. His writing, at times flip, distracting, unintelligable, indulgent, is exactly what a person on the frontlines of multicultural creation can use to make clear their intentions. He coins phrases from three different languages "Warrior For Gringostroika" - he's making something of our new world. He takes one step back from the theory that other authors are trying to tame and makes his own. Unfortunately I did not read his essay until late in the semester, so while I didn't apply his style and bravery to my writing (except as we were pre-contact compañeros), he served as a nice reminder that not all folks are awash in offense and offending - there are those people creating jarring works.
When I read "African Dance" by Pearl Primus, her unabashed enthusiasm for the movement was at first offputting, and then appreciable. She unhesitatingly celebrates the movement culture of the continent. She posits dance as integral to nearly all facets of African life. She speaks in sweeping language, evoking the dynamic quality she ascribes to African movement culture. I was interested to see myself taken aback by her excited language, I thought myself more sympathetical to invested writing. I grew used to it, but only after reading and being conscious of and reconsidering my initial reaction.
Robert W Nicholls, in his essay, "African Dance: Tradition And Continuity," speaks at length on specific, dying aspects of African dance culture. The transition to western modernity is taking a toll on dance, largely through contextual change, specifically from intimate local culture to anonymous urban monoculture. He observes continuing African inflections in the cities, but calls for some conservation, continuity within the living tradition, over preservation, a more fixed, or museumical mode of sustaining dance. His urge to sustain tradition spoke to me, but seeing it made so explicit made me excited to see someone observe current syncretisms.
Much like the work of GÓMez-PeÑA; Nicholls and GÓMez-PeÑA both take up the question of continuing traditions in a new multicultural context. Each writes on the cultural collision typical of cities. I appreciated best GÓMez-PeÑA's self-articulated active role in shaping current dance - Nicholls spends his time documenting the death and recessitation of old stuff, remarking on the new primarily as it refers or refuses the past. It forced me to realize, and then enjoy the inevitable change, and recognize incorporation as a most vital means to sustain important elements of traditional dance.
Some Thoughts on Some Thoughts on Choreographing History
In her essay, Some Thoughts on Choreographing History, Brenda Dixon-Gottschild takes issue with imperialist writing, the imposition of European-style dance standards on choreography from other cultures. Similarly to Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (author of "Listen, Our History Is Shouting At Us"), she stands as a loud voice on the current periphery dance discourse, decrying her peers responsible for sustaining colonialism in discourse. Both pieces focused primarily on observing faults in writing, though Ms. Dixon-gottschild provides a few positive examples. She proposes shifting the appropriate site of critique from dance to dancing, that the critics involve themselves more in the movement of the piece and less in their own training and perspective.
She observes several indeedly depressing examples of linguistic/critical fixing of African dance in a ballet framework, as well as failed examples of supposedly enlightened writing. She proposes a shifting of the critical locality to the other side, for example, here in the music library I see a record store distributed magazine, "Women in Song" about women singers; how about an issue, "Men in Song," about male singers? The assumption there that women are a special case of performer is just the kind of thing Ms. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild is here protesting.
My frustration with the article stems from having already read "listen our history is shouting at us," and while this piece had a more developed, reasoned, informed critique, I would like to see more specific linguistic or figurative solutions, or observed examples of folks who have emerged out from under their western critical training. Perhaps once the older generation has died out, and we have a new generation of dance writers thoroughly immersed in multiculturalism and cross-genre dance, they will avoid both the obvious judgementality and the patronizing pitfalls of the current crop of commentators.
Joann Kealiinohomoku's "An Anthropologist Looks At Ballet As A Form Of Ethnic Dance" provides an early salvo in the same struggle - to liberate the dance community and the world of spectators and performers beyond from enslavement to ballet as the standard by which all other dance is judged. Her focus rests more on cultural cues, contextual elements that populate dance, rather than linguistic devices of critics. She illustrated a similar judgementality on the part of western critics, but in doing so, she made me laugh more than she made me grimace, which i appreciated.
Barbara Engelbrecht's "Swinging At The Savoy" is a case where the writer has fully engaged the material; not at a critical distince, holding the material up to external critique, but using context and primary sources to explore her subject in its own light. While her piece is historical, and less specifically a performance review, it would have been possible to critique the dancesteps in light of more convential popular movements at the time. The lindy-hoppers of which she speaks in this case took mainstream steps and exploded them: her language reflects a wholehearted respect for their skills and project.
Approaching the history of Native American dance is a difficult proposition, as what constitutes "Native American dance" might be said to encompass a broad range of traditions and cultures, from across an immense sweep of land. It's perhaps similar to proposing "a brief history of African dance," a continent's movement in a paragraph. And what we have to work with are not even tertiary sources, more like quaterniary sources reflecting anglo perceptions and reactions to the movements of people that have been forcibly moved from their land and can seldom dance in a traditional context, and haven't for the last 150 or so years.
How does dance evolve outside of a critical vacuum? Native American dance can be said to reflect its environs, observing the coming and going of planets and corresponding spirits, communicating with animals surrounding, or teaching their customs to their children. Many thousands of years stands behind what DH Lawrence observed of the Hopi Snake Dance; the story of how the Hopi reached that point amidst the travelled families in Fords is outside of what I have read.
(My most vivid experience with Native American dance is video, so my proceeding commentary on "Native American dance" will be drawn from material featuring primarily women dancing at a stadium pow-wow, in which specific tradition I can not at this time recall).
Thanks to "Flamencologists" - folks devoted to the study of Flamenco, we have multiple coherent, tangible, divergent though intersecting theories on the origins of this form.
Flamencan roots have been traced through Gypsies to northern India, and its Kathak dancing, which features hand movements similar to those of Flamenco. Or, elements of the Indian tradition were passed through Morrocco into Spain.
Reagrdless of the origin of pieces of the whole movement style, the synthesis took place in Spain, a crossroads of Arabic/Middle Eastern and European cultures, during the Spanish Inquisition, a time when groups outside the Catholic Church were actively legislated against and actually tortured and killed. Romantic accounts of the origins of Flamenco feature pariahed groups encamped in remote forests sharing traditions, including dance music and perhaps even poetry. This is why much early Flamenco music and lyrics are politically charged, whereas later works consider more broadly human situations. Later the form moved into more bar/club settings, were the public, outside the Gypsy community could witness the fantastic energy involved. It caught on in Spain, and eventually the world over, leading to an inevitable "selling out," a cheapening or watering down of the form in some eyes. Some say Flamenco is since been recovering from this nadir. Recent innovations have included gender crossing, that is, women taking footwork previously regarded as male/masculine, and men incorporating more sensuous movement into their steps.
Both dance traditions are anchored by feet close the ground stepping in rapt succession to the beat. Both dances feature drumming/instrumentation and voice, Flamenco with the addition of strings. Both leave room for additional musical input from the dancers - Flamenco has the stamping of its dancers, and Native American dance features folks with rattles or even little metal pieces attached to their clothes, jingling as they move.
Native American dance takes place in a more explictly religious context - ceremonial, whereas Flamenco seems to take place best after wine late at night in a club or bar. However, they share perhaps similar emergent contexts: some recent Native American dance might be said to have emerged from persecution, created on reservations after native land had been seized, much as the dialog that in large part originated Flamenco took place in estraged conditions (Inquisitional Spain). Also, both dancers seem to enter a trance like state, reacting to the music, but primarily dancing alone, or with some distant entity they are evoking, or perhaps being possessed by.
Re:Flamenco: I liked "Carmen Amaya Wore Pants: Flamenco As A Forum For Cross-Gender Identification Within Spanish Gypsy Culture." Reading about a woman with transgressive powers who took the form and willingly made it her own was inspiring, while her impact on Flamenco, and the resulting Flamenco form corroborated my own sense of the sexuality of the dance, that is, that man were somehow, sometimes, acting in ways feminine, and women as masculine. That she can be observed as an early leader of this gender subversion provides a nice locus of study: the specific steps she adapted, and how she shifted the tempo and even focus of the female Flamenco dancer. To have changed a dance that previously had fixed roles for each sex stands as a notable achievement, so it was interesting to see the story of this woman some - still attached to her family though smoking a lot and running with men alone after hours.
"Play, Role Reversal And Humor: Symbolic Elements Of A Tewa Pueblo Navajo Dance," by Jill Drayson Sweet showed me the non-uniformity of the genre of native dance, and that the kind of play that I thought characterized such genre-transgressing pieces as Western Ballet is not solely indigenous to postmodern western culture, but exists within the "Native American" dance tradition as well. In this piece, Sweet describes a native dance parodying the behaviour and movements of a neighboring tribe. The relations with that tribe are ambiguous; troubled - the feelings of the Tewa about the Navajo are in this dance worked out through imitation and exageration. So while their contextual cues, animalia, costumery, are mostly different from mine, their urges and perhaps sense of humour are more similar to my own.
Definition of Dance
At the midterm, my definintion of dance was "conscious performed physical relation." My work since in this class has mostly affirmed that, as have outside experiences. The "physical" aspects of dance have become less important, however, some as I've choreographed myself, and after watching Jiri Kylian, I've come to think more about aspects of dance take place in the mind or soul. Still, for the purposes of identifying explicit dance, the above definition holds, but "dance" can be used to describe thoughts, relationships, perhaps even states of mind. "Dance" is a useful metaphor for active relating, hence I think my sense of my definition now has more of an emphasis on the "relation"ary aspects of dance, as borne out by my video and reading reactions below. So perhaps to rephrase, dance is "conscious relational performed oft-physical relation" - a little less pithy than the other one.
In "Lion In The Laundromat," Sally Hess explores the tribulations of solo travel, evolving form to match circumstances, both in response to circumstances, and to evoke the proper "duende" for the situation. Her personal, first hand account touched me and grounded me - dancing, simply creation, can be difficult when one performer reaches out to an audience, or transplants themselves into another community or context. After reading the piece, I had the sense that she had grown enormously from the experience, which was emboldening. Her work develops the conscious and relational aspects of my definition of dance; she was refining her craft in relation to her audience and experiences.
Joann W. Kealiinohomoku's "Ethical Considerations For Choreographers, Ethnologists And White Knights" excoriates the notion, of conscious and unconscious dance historians, both of saving, or preserving traditional dance, as well as visiting foreign dance. Instead of typical distanced dance critique, she proposes radical contextual immersion. She posits her own time amidst Native Americans, over a period of some weeks (months?), As a model: by participating in their tasks and customs for a sustained time period, she understands the moments of dance performance within their context, unlike the majority of western visitors, who come primarily for their own purposes, and end up affirming their own preexistant biases and predilictions. This piece for me reinforced the relation of dance to the most mundane aspects of any given culture. That relationship is critical.
When the class experimented with social dance, I had a chance to witness the permeable borders between individual improvisation and collective evolution. Seeing individual movements work their way from body to body, across the room, reinforced the idea of dance as communication. That people were shy about eye contact, and physical confrontation, but they were still subtly communicating served as an inspiring testimony to the irresistable power of dance as discourse, relation.
Watching Ayla Yavin's Appalacia piece during the student dance concert raised potent questions for me, and moreover for my more politically minded friends. Ayla, a young Jewish woman from brooklyn, had choreographed a series of gestures evocative of the mountains of Virginia and Tenessee (at least my distance, mediated conception thereof), to music of that blue grass variety, and dedicated the piece to the Kentucky coalminer in her heart. Some of my friends were a bit disgusted with the ironic tone, or the seeming appropriation of form far outside her cultural mileu. I accepted her work on the basis of appreciation, that she was paying tribute, and finding a common dialog of pain and courting, pleasure and pride within the vocabulary of another. Ayla's piece was a struggle with and ultimately a celebration of cross-cultural relations through movement.