Deborah Jowitt*

Deborah Jowitt. Photo: David Dashiell
Photo: David Dashiell

During my first decades of writing dance criticism, I, like many of my colleagues, was influenced by Susan Sontag’s collection of essays: Against Interpretation.[1] I decided to focus on movement and form and my own responses (unless the work being reviewed was one with an obvious story to tell—such as Swan Lake or Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra). My heroes, like Sontag’s, were Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine. They and more radical American choreographers, like Trisha Brown, conveyed the idea that “what you see and hear is what you get.” Or, “if you want to interpret it, feel free to do so.” For a critic, in the digital world, interpretation is no longer a “feel free” matter; it’s often a challenging obligation in relation to the kinds of dances that we see.

Adventurous art changes with the times. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Martha Graham wrote manifestos about her choreographic principles, she spoke of a new tempo that had been prompted by the development of machines.[2] It had a quicker, harder rhythm, and the city streets of New York intensified that.

The rhythm of today, however, has a flickering energy—suggesting a world of sudden transitions, of disparate elements layered over one another or butted together. We are multi-taskers; we tweet; we comment; we join chat rooms; we seek online for the best or cheapest products, or ways of improving our health. Our computer’s desktop may have enough open windows for a castle, and the sidebar lures us into new, unanticipated territory.

It was some time during the late 1980s that postmodern choreography became more closely aligned with elements that defined postmodernism in the visual arts, film, literature, architecture and design—for example, historical reference, eclecticism, pastiche, various deconstructive strategies and the incorporation of elements drawn from popular culture, and from other cultures. Autobiography, plus political, social and gender issues, entered the picture.

In analogous ways, the processes associated with writing and publishing dance criticism have also changed. This is especially true in the blogosphere, where many of my colleagues follow a pattern similar to mine. Since 2011, I have been cutting and pasting my reviews—as long or as short as I like—into my blog on an online publication.[3] I write on a MacBook Pro, download photos, shrink them, insert them into the text, and post the whole thing with appropriate tags.

I have access to ideas and facts that can’t always be found in a hurry by critics who must keep to a newspaper’s strict deadlines. Sources are waiting online: relevant sheet music, analysis of the score, YouTube or Vimeo clips of past performances, bios, headshots, company history. It’s possible to get hooked on this information glut and the speed with which I can, for example, virtually enter a museum to check a painting that inspired an image in a dance I’ve seen. No editor helps me—only knowledgeable friends or strangers who e-mail (sometimes within five minutes) to correct, dispute, expand upon, or criticize my criticism.

The web also reveals a gratifying appetite for dance worldwide. In clips ranging from three minutes in length to over an hour long, you can find rare historical footage—from Anna Pavlova in 1905 as the Dying Swan to Bonnie Bird in 1939, going through Martha Graham exercises at Mills College in Oakland, California.[4] There’s almost no such thing as a sell-by date attached to material posted on the internet. Cyberspace never fills up.

It isn’t snobbish either. You can see the very young Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1969, dancing in a Moscow ballet competition.[5] Or, you can view virtuosity taken to extremes like the YouTube post of two dancers from China’s Guandong acrobatic troupe performing a “classical” pas de deux that culminates with the woman (an accomplished ballet dancer) standing in arabesque, on pointe, on her partner’s head.[6] The official Korean music video of  “gangnam style” on YouTube features not much dance virtuosity (albeit a modicum of charm and humor), yet it draws viewers in. It has received over 2,000,000,000 hits since 2012.[7]

The kind of flickering rhythm and layered ideas that I mentioned earlier have found their way into the work of many 21st century choreographers, especially those drawn to telling stories. They may collage several elements or rub diverse narratives together in order to ignite something about contemporary life that neither element alone can express, fleshing out their complex ideas by the use of text, video and digital effects. Ideas and images that flare up in dances may link to others, simmer down and go through transformations. Just as they do on our laptops and cell phones

For this essay, I have chosen to focus on several works that premiered in New York City after 2000, in order to clarify some of the artistic strategies that I have discerned.

In 2004, choreographer David Gordon, one of the original members of Judson Dance Theater (the incubator for much of the choreography later labeled postmodern) was moved by America’s war in Iraq to re-imagine Shakespeare’s Henry V, a drama of an English king invading France on disputed evidence. Dancing Henry V also drew resonance from the contemporary American political scene. As I noted when reviewing its 2011 revival, “Also, just as Prince Hal, a rowdy pub crawler, reformed with a vengeance as soon as the crown encircled his brow, George Bush the Younger, cast aside his carousing years at Yale and became a born-again Christian.”[8]

Valda Settefield as Shakespeare's Chorus in David Gordon's Dancing Henry V. Photo: Paula Court
Valda Settefield as Shakespeare’s Chorus in David Gordon’s 
Dancing Henry V. Photo: Paula Court

In 1588, Shakespeare’s Chorus warned patrons of London’s Globe Theater that spectacle in Henry V would be minimal: “[C]an this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”[9] Gordon’s Chorus, Valda Setterfield, disarmingly confidential in manner, told the present-day audience that Gordon, like many other choreographers, is accustomed to work with make-do scenery and costumes, and that Dancing Henry Five was trying to convey the effect of two large armies at battle with “seven dancers, three dummies, and me.”[10]

Robert La Fosse as Henry V prepares his soldiers for the coming battle with the French in David Gordon's Dancing Henry V. Photo: Paula Court
Robert La Fosse as Henry V prepares his soldiers for the coming battle with the French in David Gordon’s Dancing Henry V.
Photo: Paula Court

Music from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version of the play cut in and out; so, occasionally, did the voices of its actors and those of actors in other films of the play. However, the live performers wore black shorts and rugby shirts, and—acting in part as stagehands—created an almost non-stop swirl of movement. They bore placards, turned fabrics into flags, laid them down as sailing ships, or added them to costumes. A wheeled ladder served as a horse; poles stood in for weapons. Setterfield spoke as herself to link the lives of today’s low-income dancers with the rag-tag English soldiers on the eve of the battle of Agincourt in 1415. In other words, the speaking and moving associated with the “product” included the processes involved in its creation and the ideas behind it. Contemporary anger and a desire for peace rubbed against a 16th-century justification of war.

Jane Comfort’s 2008, also politically motivated An American Rendition juxtaposed two “texts” that might be considered highly disparate. One concerned an American scientist at an overseas conference, who was mistaken for a terrorist and abducted to a country that used torture to interrogate suspects; his wife, searching for him, encountered a bureaucracy both terrifying and absurd. The word “rendition” in its other sense applies to the performance of a song or dance, and the performers suddenly became participants in a popular television contest such as “American Idol” or “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Lisa Niedermeyer trains a gun on the "prisoners."
Lisa Niedermeyer trains a gun on the “prisoners.”

Comfort and her actor-dancers merged these two strands in order to make a statement that was about both average citizens’ political disengagement and their empty dreams of stardom. An American Rendition also contrasted the humiliations to which the prisoner was subjected with those that contestants have to expect at the hands of their judges. A hand-held remote by an interrogator was a symbolic presence, reminding us that, we, sitting on our couches, can turn off not only what has ceased to entertain us, but also what we would rather not know.[11]

Jane Comfort's An American Rendition. Sean Donovan (left) as the victim.
Jane Comfort’s An American Rendition. Sean Donovan (left) as the victim.

Re-envisioning well-known dance works has also become a choreographic strategy. In 2006, Yvonne Rainer—in the 1960s, one of the innovators in Judson Dance Theater and, later, a filmmaker of distinction—created AG Indexical, with a little help from H.M. for a special program featuring music by Igor Stravinsky. The “AG” stands for George Balanchine’s 1957 ballet, Agon, and Rainer’s four female dancers performed and re-formed some of the ballet’s choreography and artistic principles. In 2007, Rainer built RoS Indexical around the debut performance of Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1913 Rite of Spring and the outraged responses to it. The piece was performed by the same four notable women, only one of them a ballet dancer.[12]

At times, references to the history of dance may merge with a choreographer’s own life or concerns, Tamar Rogoff’s 2009 Diagnosis of a Faun was inspired by a performance she saw of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In it, the actor playing Tybalt had developed a curious, bold gait, due to cerebral palsy dating from his birth. He, Gregg Mozgala, made Rogoff think of the famous 1912 ballet Afternoon of a Faun, and how Vaslav Nijinsky, its choreographer and star, presented that mythical creature—half-man, half-goat, who walked in two-dimensional patterns and sometimes on tiptoe. The daughter of a doctor, Rogoff has always practiced, in the words of her website, “methods of release through unorthodox body practices.”[13] She created a dance-theater piece in which Mozgala was featured as the Faun and, at the same time, worked therapeutically with him as the choreography developed. (Until then, he had never, when standing or walking, been able to touch his heels to the ground.)

Gregg Mozgala, and Lucie Baker in Tamar Rogoff's Diagnosis of a Faun
Gregg Mozgala and Lucie Baker in Tamar Rogoff’s Diagnosis of a Faun

Diagnosis of a Faun referenced Nijinsky’s faun and his attraction to a particular nymph, as well as the high “rock” that Ballets Russes designer Leon Bakst had created for him to rest on. However, Rogoff’s “nymph” was also “Dr. A.”  In her erotic pas de deux with the faun, she both lusted for him and examined his foot as if to check its status. Another female dancer, supposedly injured, underwent a foot operation on stage, after which she burst from behind the operating table’s curtain, fully dressed in a tutu and wearing pointe shoes. The partner who then supported her in a pas de deux was gray-haired “Dr. B.,” an actual doctor familiar with Mozgala’s case.[14]

Gregg Mozgala, and Lucie Baker in Tamar Rogoff's Diagnosis of a Faun
Gregg Mozgala and Lucie Baker in Tamar Rogoff’s Diagnosis of a Faun

The work of Rogoff’s can also be related to those of other choreographers, such as Heidi Latsky, who challenge the ancient dance ideal of “perfect” bodies in order to acknowledge the diversity and commonality among able-bodied and physically challenged dancers.[15] It is hard to imagine the stimulating conference titled Dance. Disability. Artistry, held in New York City in 2015, being assembled in earlier decades.[16]

In the digital age, where distances can be traversed virtually and immediately, cultural differences are more easily be bridged and brought together. Geography: art, race, exile (1997), the first of the three works that comprise Ralph Lemon’s Geography Trilogy, expressed the choreographer’s desire, as an African American, to connect with his African roots. In Tree: belief, culture, balance (2000), he attempted to confront the issues of high-speed globalization and (to quote a press release), to probe “the profound effect [that] exposure to new cultures has on people’s lives.”[17] Finally, in Come Home Charley Patton (2004), he drew on his own first visit to the American South. Primed by his travels and the unfamiliar experiences connected with them, he brought most members of the small cast of Geography from Africa. The performers in Tree were recruited from rural China, Taiwan, India, Japan, West Africa, as well as from the United States. In that second part of the trilogy, for instance, India’s traditional Odissi style intersected—and shared the stage with—contemporary western dance passages choreographed by Lemon. Some of his ideas were daring: for instance, two Chinese farmers in Tree played their traditional instruments while wearing minstrel-show blackface.[18]

The proscenium stage creates a boundary that dares spectators to cross it; sometimes, an orchestra pit intervenes. Occasionally, a choreographer will send performers into the audience to invite some spectators onstage. I think of Pina Bausch from Germany and Ohad Naharin from Israel. But, “invite” is the key word here. Even in a small black-box theater, in which the first-row spectators are close enough to the performers to reach out and touch them, no one usually does.

A number of today’s more daring choreographers have, nonetheless, focused on re-orienting the role of the audience. “Community” is a key word in such an endeavor. To my mind, the process also has something akin to the almost instant feedback that links online writers with their readers—sometimes causing changes to be made in the original material.

Audiences primed for performances in which traditional spectatorship is shaken up tend to be anxious to please and, apparently, hard to shock. And the size of the audience at a given show may be limited on purpose in order to promote more intimate encounters. When a mostly naked woman inched somnolently along a very large dining table in a Williamsburg loft during Noémie Lafrance’s 2009 Home, we, twenty people seated on either side of the table, intuited what we had to do: We dipped black crayons in the water we’d been given and wrote on her body.[19]

For her 2008 The Sublime Is Us, Luciana Achugar seated a limited audience very close to a mirrored wall in one of New York Live Arts’ studios. When the dancers moved in the narrow spaces front of us, their reflections doubled them; when they were behind us, we saw them in the mirror. And always we watched ourselves watching.  Although we saw the dancers’ sweat and felt their gestures stir the air, we didn’t expect to be touched. At one point, however, we sat in darkness listening while Achugar’s voice urged us to “get in touch with our sensuous selves, to let our brains melt into our pelvises, spread our buttocks, and use our ‘buttbrains’ for a change.”[20]

Choreographer Zvi Gotheiner jumped on the digital bandwagon with his 2005 Zoom. While a woman danced alone, words projected on a screen behind her invited audience members to take a photo of her with their cell phones and either text or e-mail these to the number provided. The photos submitted appeared intermittently on the screen, interspersed with various patterns and transformed video images. Apparently, the dancer’s gestures could also make her image tilt or come forward or be swiped and disappear.[21]

Ying-Ying Shiau and Aaron Carr. Photo: Paul B. Goode
Ying-Ying Shiau and Aaron Carr in Zoom. Photo: Paul B. Goode
Kuan Hui Chew and Kyle Lang. Photo: Franziska Strauss
Kuan Hui Chew and Kyle Lang in Zoom. Photo: Franziska Strauss

One of the more elaborate pieces that challenged the audience’s usual perspective (and without digital enhancement) was John Jasperse’s 2005 Prone. Forty-eight audience members checked their coats and bags at the door of New York’s The Kitchen and exchanged their shoes for slippers. Twenty-four sat on chairs on either side of the performance space; twenty-four lay on the clear plastic inflatable mattresses arranged in rows on the floor (half-way through Prone, those lying down were escorted to the chairs and those seated could get a turn to lie down). Harpist-composer Zeena Parkins sat where the audience usually did, and the dancers worked together in the aisles between the rows. At one point, one nuzzled the feet of a seated audience member the way dogs smell strangers. The perspective of those lying down was remarkably altered. They could turn their heads to watch the dancing going on in an aisle beside them, but because overhead mirrors reflected the actions of three performers, they also had a slightly distorted view that included themselves. As the piece progressed and escalated in speed and design, the recumbent watchers could also see in extreme close-up the legs and crotches of the dancers who were stepping, turning, or leaping over them.[22]

From John Jasperse's Prone: Hullihan (left), Luciana Achugar and spectators. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
John Jasperse’s Prone: Eleanor Hullihan (left), Luciana Achugar and spectators. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Choreographers have various reasons for wishing to erode the traditional boundary between spectators and performers. Anti-elitism may figure in that attempt, as may a desire to provoke a more direct and visceral response. The decision to bring together artists and their audiences reflects that yearning for instant connection that causes a person walking along a city street to call a friend on his or her cell phone to announce, “I’m only a block away now.” Some of the dance works I have mentioned could be said to challenge an era when “connectivity” often substitutes for actual physical, face-to-face interactions.

From John Jasperse's Prone: Luciana Achugar, Levi Gonzalez and Eleanor Hullihan. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
John Jasperse’s Prone: Luciana Achugar, Levi Gonzalez and Eleanor Hullihan. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Global connections have also facilitated new artistic networks. Several decades ago, small American companies began to get engagements and residencies in Europe (and, eventually on other continents), and companies came from abroad to perform in the U.S. These days, dance scholars and artists in America travel to participate in conferences or festivals held in cities as near as Toronto and as far as Bratislava, Slovakia, or Seoul, Korea. Students who graduated from, for example, a conservatory-style dance department like that of the Juilliard School, have ended up performing in a ballet company in Switzerland or a contemporary one in Tel-Aviv.

Funding for dance has profited from digital technology. I find in my inbox almost every day one or more Kickstarter campaign pleas from small dance companies trying to mount a season or raise enough money to get, for example, to the Edinburgh Festival, where they’ve gotten a slot in which to perform.

Although the established dance traditions continue, the changed ways in which the art form may be perceived, practiced, funded, disseminated and written about have opened our eyes to possibilities that, thirty years ago, most people could not have imagined.

Rommel Salveron. Photo: Elizabeth Renstorm
Rommel Salveron in Zoom. Photo: Elizabeth Renstorm

Deborah Jowitt. Photo: David Dashiell
Photo: David Dashiell

*Deborah Jowitt wrote about dance for The Village Voice from 1967 to 2011 and now publishes her criticism at artsjournal.com. Her books include Dance Beat (1977), The Dance in Mind (1985), Time and the Dancing Image (1988) and Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (2004). She taught at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts until 2016.

[1] Susan Sontag. Against Interpretation: And Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.

[2] Graham, Martha in Modern Dance (1935), edited by Virginia Stewart. Brooklyn, New York: Dance Horizons, 1970, p. 50.

[3] Deborah Jowitt: www.artsjournal.com/dancebeat/

[4] Anna Pavlova performing Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMEBFhVMZpU. “Bonnie Bird Demonstrating Martha Graham Technique 1938-1939”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpXOBHDiFD8

[5] Two separate performances by Baryshnikov of Solor’s solo from La Bayadère at the Moscow International Competition of 1969: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neaWSJxZEoI

[6] Members of the Guandong Acrobatic Troupe performing in a Monte Carlo cabaret: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9j10GhJR7aA

[7] The official gangnam style music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CH1XGdu-hzQ

[8] Deborah Jowitt. “But if the Cause Be Not Good. . .”, October 9, 2011: http://www.artsjournal.com/dancebeat/2011/10/but-if-the-cause-be-not-good/

[9] William Shakespeare. Henry V, Prologue.

[10] David Gordon. Dancing Henry V taped at Peak Performances, Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey in 2011:  https://vimeo.com/45450765

[11] Jane Comfort’s An American Rendition (a promotional video of excerpts): www.janecomfortandcompany.org/media_videos_repertory_an_american_rendition.html

[12] Yvonne Rainer. Excerpts from a video (2007) of RoS Indexical to promote its 2010 performances at the Dublin Dance Festive by Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer and Sally Silvers: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6b1xh2I_Chw

[13] Tamar Rogoff. http://tamarrogoff.weebly.com/biography.html

[14] Tamar Rogoff. Enter the Faun (trailer):  www.enterthefaun.com/#prettyPhoto/0/

[15] Heidi Latsky’s The Gimp Project: www.heidilatskydance.com/gimp-project/

[16] A report on the conference “Dance. Disability. Artistry” and the resulting publication can be accessed at Dance/NYC’s website. See: http://www.dance.nyc/advocacy-and-research/research/2016/02/Disability.-Dance.-Artistry

[17] The press release refers to the September, 2006 performances of Tree at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis.

[18] Three books about the works in Lemon’s Geography Trilogy have been published by Wesleyan University Press: Geography: art/ race/ exile (2000), Tree: belief/ culture/ balance (2004), and Come Home Charley Patton (2013).

[19] A fuller account of Lafrance’s Home by Deborah Jowitt can be found at: http://www.villagevoice.com/arts/nomie-lafrance-melanie-maar-and-keith-hennessy-inscribe-the-body-7133269

[20] Luciana Achugar’s The Sublime premiered at Dance Theater Workshop, New York City on October 21, 2008. The audience was limited to thirty people at each performance.

[21] Zvidance premiered Zoom at Dance Theater Workshop, New York City on April 7, 2005.

[22] For a fuller account of John Jasperse’s Prone: Deborah Jowitt. “Three Perspectives.” The Village Voice, December 6, 2005. http://www.villagevoice.com/arts/three-perspectives-7136803

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Tracking Performances in the Digital Age