As global art worlds e/merge and artists circulate with increasing intensity, discussions around authenticity are spinning new and compelling narratives. While moving among gatherings of live arts curators and in daily conversations with creative artists in North America and Europe the concept frequently resurfaces, often with urgency and in divergent forms. From the meditative practice of Authentic Movement to the integrity of a curatorial vision, why is this ethos so pervasive at this time and what does it mean to postmodern performers, live arts creators, curators and audiences? In this self-reflexive essay, grounded in fieldwork, lived experience, literature and interviews, I will investigate the variations on and meanings of this contemporary quest in art worlds to “be true to ones’ self.”
Keywords: art curation, authenticity, dance, choreography, Authentic Movement
The ethos of authenticity is ubiquitous in contemporary artworlds. Recently, it seems to have taken on a renewed urgency in this post-colonialist era, at least within the North American social environment that I inhabit in my work as a postmodern dance curator and anthropologist, university educator and researcher. The pursuit of authenticity reappears frequently as a motive for artistic creation in the course of conversations with art world colleagues. It is articulated in many of the choreographic statements of belief in proposals which I have received in recent years as the curator of Tangente, the dance presenting space I co-founded in Montréal, Canada in 1980. While reviewing field notes, interviews and gathering data for this essay, it soon became apparent that this social construct is on display not only in galleries and theatres, but extolling its virtues most everywhere I turned my attention: in street and print media advertising, food writing, presidential elections, the books I am reading and even advertising for clothing and household furniture.
But what do performing artists and live arts curators mean when speaking and writing about an authentic artistic practice or performance work, and why is this concept so prevalent at this time? This essay explores these questions and was developed over six months of ethnographic research for an annual conference of the Dance Studies Association, one which proposed “Beyond Authenticity and Appropriation” in 2016 as a thematic framework.
This subject is vast! And so, in the limited space of this journal article, I have chosen to concentrate on a circumscribed body of evidence gleaned from practice-based fieldwork and from an auto-ethnographic perspective. I will leave behind for future investigation other intriguing theories and ideas related to authenticity in the arts, such as: that art-making is in fact a biological imperative (Dissanayke 1992); how the métier of artist was a social invention that followed that of the artisan (Shiner 2001); the post-colonial politics of arts presentation (Lepecki 2017); debates on institutional (Marstine 2006) and art marketplace (Thornton 2008) critiques; cultural appropriation (Foster 2009); and, the sociological nature and function of art worlds (Becker 1982).
Beginning with an autoethnographic account of how I formed my own understanding of authenticity, I’ll move on to the term’s etymology while offering a surprising collection of synonyms gathered from interviews. The second part of the text will consider what an authentic practice might mean to live arts curators, artistic creators, performers and audiences from their lived experiences. I’ll wrap up the essay with the case study of Tangente, and how it can be seen as a dance presenting organization that embodies my own authenticity.
“New Age” Seekers of Authenticity
As a former child of the New Age now entering my 70s, the term “authenticity” brings to mind my generation’s devotion to a set of beliefs in which I was imbued while living in California in the 1960s and 1970s. That was a formative period for consolidating the humanistic worldview which still holds true for me, and which (in)formed the foundation of Tangente in the 1980s.
It seemed to us then that the ravages of high capitalism (today’s term being neo-liberalism) had robbed the occidental world of its profound personal and cosmic meanings. So off we went, children of that new age, to distant lands and remote countrysides. We meditated in the ashrams of India or moved away closer to home to form rural communities, in search of the inner life of our “authentic selves.”
In that era, authenticity was largely a matter of exploring “alternative spiritualities” and various other forms of self-realization. British social anthropologist Steven Sutcliffe has researched and written an informative, critical and thought-provoking ethnographic narrative of the rise and proliferation of various New Age spiritual cults and cultures in the U.K. from 1930 to present day. He detailed the diverse orientations, loyalties and practices of its Seekers, affirming that these groups were far from creating consensus about a common path to truth and enlightenment (2003).
Among the goals of the communities with whom I lived and worked in the early 1970s was to attain inner and world peace and, of course, a state of universal love. It is still true that my conception of authenticity—in the sense of “being true to ones’ self”—is closely linked to valuing integrity. From my understanding, this meant living within the body/mind of a politically engaged artist whose mission was to advance social justice, environmental sustainability and so to forge a better world. With characteristic optimism and self-admitted idealism, I continue to believe—to “hold on to the dream” —that we can advance towards these aims through the realization of bold artistic visions.
The Varieties of Authenticities
Nearly half a century later, as contemporary art worlds merge and emerge and circulate with increasing intensity in most corners of the world, discussions about authenticity are spinning novel and compelling cross-cultural narratives. While moving among colleagues in professional circles of dance and theatre curators, choreographers and dancers, I notice this concept resurfacing and taking on diverse forms and meanings.
In terms of etymology, suffice it to recall here that it is rooted in the Latin authenticus and translates as “original, genuine.” Dictionary definitions attribute at least three characteristics to the term “authentic”: (1) it resembles an original; (2) it is based on facts, is reliable and accurate; and (3) it is real, true (Oxford 2020; Antidote 2020). Of interest to this essay is also the contribution that the field of existential philosophy has brought to the notion of the authentic as: “relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life” (Oxford 2020).
Here is a whimsical, if provocative, collection of variations and synonyms that were unearthed in the course of interviews for this essay. When asked to elaborate on what this idea meant to them, art world colleagues described their way of articulating authenticity in a surprising array of terms: a quest for “the real,” finding one’s true self, getting at the heart of one’s desire; honesty, truthfulness, sincerity, integrity, genuineness, earnestness; the primordial quest, an alignment between being and doing; making decisions from the inside; a through thread about identity; being comfortable with just being; transparency, vulnerability; an end to bullshit (my personal favorite); something raw and the “home-made.” The latter reminds me of the intriguing case for “authentic cuisine,” which food consultant Katie Ayoub explains as that which “speaks to origin, integrity, tradition and intent” and so requires “respect for the heritage or origin of the dish” (Ayoub 2016). It is, in particular, the notion of (artistic) intent that will be reintroduced later in the essay when considering the aims of authentic artistic practice.
The Authentic Live Arts Curator
What might it mean to curate a theatre or a festival with authenticity? To begin with some background, as of this writing the vocation of live arts curator has barely attained the status of a profession. It was only with the publication of the Croatian journal Frakcija No.55 special issue on “Performing Arts Curation,” in 2010, that a body of literature, as well as university-level courses and programmes have emerged to support the practice.
This and consequent publications throughout the last decade confirm that those who claim the title of curator in the live arts are generally arts-experienced and/or arts-educated artistic directors of theatres and festivals, or independent artist-curators who have elaborated curatorial visions and frameworks for the events they envision that are in sync with their (art) world views. For so many postmodern arts curators, the idea of being authentic is that of maintaining a devotion to supporting those artists whose work they see as impactful, innovative and transformative.
From four decades of professional exchanges with live arts presenters, the organization of an international symposium in 2014 (see cica-icac.com) and through editing an anthology Curating Live Arts (Davida, Gabiels, Hudon, Pronovost 2018) with 60 curator-contributors, I can say with confidence that we think of ourselves as most authentic when we act with integrity, passion and personal conviction, and succeed in resisting the mercenary forces of the for-profit “cultural industries.” In this spirit, we also often take on the role of educators, artistic “mediators” as well as artists’ advocates, seeking to further the proliferation and impact of the contemporary arts and its proponents.
Some of us are also dramaturgs, in other words consultants to choreographers and theatre directors as they forge their creative processes. Current discussions and writing about the vocation of live arts curation include the idea of institutional critique, and also how we are integrating an “ethics of care” into our practice as we negotiate and navigate relationships between artists, audiences, institutions and communities. Indeed, the Latin root curare translates as “to care for” as well as “to cure.”
To illustrate this idea of an authentic curator in this mold, there is one who was sitting by my side last dance season and has now taken my place at Tangente: Marco Pronovost. This insightful young cultural worker whose field of practice he has baptized art social, which is a concept that is fleshed out in his book Art et développement (Pronovost 25–26). Based on his Masters’ research, he proposes a world in which artists become agents of social change by cultivating the qualities of empathy, self-confidence and emotional intelligence (93).
I have observed how these traits are made manifest in his conversations with young artistic creators, his deft management of contentious group discussions and his careful handling of audience talks with artists. Within his multi-layered curatorial practice, for example, he has organized exhibitions of artwork made by homeless men, created a national Canadian forum in “social arts,” ran a children’s introduction to performing arts series at Place des arts, Montreal, and created instruction booklets for arts workers on racism, indigenous peoples and social inclusiveness. For Pronovost, curation is a means to building community, to bettering society.
Authentic Creators and Performers
Turning now to dancemakers and dancers, I am reminded of dance historian Sally Banes’ metaphor “democracy’s body,” the title of her ethnographic portrayal of the daily workings of Judson Dance Theatre (Banes 1983), in thinking about authenticity in the light of the emergence of postmodern dance in the 1960s and its aftermath. This New York City dance collective was certainly emblematic, along with the practice of Contact Improvisation that was initiated by one of its members, Steve Paxton (Novack 1990), of collective and egalitarian ways of creating dance performances as they sought to allow each dancer to fully engage in their distinct artistic visions. It is now more than six decades since we have shifted our theories and practices towards this paradigm of social equality, equity and decolonization, in our ways of being and living together in the (now globally entangled) world of live arts.
For so many creators and interpreters alike, the practice of postmodern dance has meant adopting a complex of ideas that is imbued with an ethos of authenticity. It has signified, for instance, “being true to one’s self” by way of crystallizing a singular and personalized artistic vision, arising from a particular world view; creating democratic models for working together with humanity and respectfulness; and bringing art and life together by “being real” onstage.
As for the dance performers, I have often heard them speak about the necessity of being honest and vulnerable in their role as a medium to channel the choreography to an audience in the course of a performance. Indian theatre researcher Ruhi Jhunjhunwala echoes this idea, referencing her recent M.A. thesis “The Power of Vulnerability in Performance” (2018), when she sheds light on the performer’s authenticity as a matter of “faith”:
I wanted to talk about the importance of faith and belief (not religious) that a performer brings on stage. Their unwavering belief (in what?—their training and/or something else?) allows them to be vulnerable and authentic on stage. This, in turn, is an invitation to the audience to do the same and in that moment of a truthful encounter between the performer and the spectator lies the transformative power of performance.
It is also safe to say that the old school classical and modernist body-as-instrument model, in which the choreographer “sets” the dance on the dancers— within this postmodern aftermath—has been giving way to the idea of the body-as-a-site-of-knowledge (see, for instance, the research in Rouhiainin 2007). As Sylvie Fortin and Pamela Newell explain, in describing the “participant” dancer’s role, “[she] is appreciated, not only as a bodily filter for ideas, but also as a fully formed human being with a unique biography, morphology, education, and culture” (194). Within this paradigm, certainly influenced by recent research in neuroscience and somatics, we can see now how articulate, thinking and self-aware bodies are valued and authenticated. Dancers are more fully empowered participants, more “truly themselves,” as they contribute to shaping choreographic aesthetics during their creative processes.
As a first generation of postmodernist choreographers and dancers are coming of age and preparing their legacy, some are constructing pedagogies and practices out of their singular choreographic ethos (for instance, Gaga, Axis, Fighting Monkey, Flying Low and so many more). We now have an increasing variety of choices from which dancers can choose their affinities, to train and shape their own bodies and personal visions. There even exists a practice named Authentic Movement whose stated purpose is to embody the unconscious mind. As an early precursor of the above-mentioned pedagogies, it is certainly emblematic of today’s “authentic mover” as one who seeks to unlock an intrinsic, deeply intuitive and somatic source of inspiration for choreography and performance.
And now, free (or at least freer) from the dictates of a small group of Modern Dance techniques, each postmodern dancemaker is called upon to flesh out “a school of their own,” as maverick founder of the Musée de la danse Boris Charmatz would have it (2009). So, how might a dance creator find their authentic footing, otherwise known as their aesthetic “signature” or “voice,” in this revolutionary and subjective choreographic landscape? There is no simple, singular answer. Vancouver choreographer Ziyian Kwan shared her personal struggles with the intricacies of navigating authentic contemporary dance-making in light of her fluid state of mind. She wrote:
Authenticity is a double-edged sword. It’s the sharp intelligence of the heart, and also a blunt ideal, rife with befuddling nuances. As an artist who is a many-headed beast, my approach is informed by a constantly shifting ethos. Integrity is just another word for versatility. Sometimes the action that feels right tomorrow is wrong today. . . . At the beginning, middle and ending of every nanosecond, there is authenticity in being mindful of the fact that our choices have untenable circumstances. (2016)
And choreographer-researcher kg Guttman reminded me that authenticity might after all be a matter of acquiring a deeper sense of self-understanding that brings an acute awareness of one’s context and its shifting conditions:
kg: So, I guess tonight, the notion of authenticity for me is taking into account my own body in relation to a circumstance or many circumstances—to take the situatedness of how and when a thought or a gesture or a creative process comes to appear, and respond to that singularity. For me, it’s trying to build a deep awareness of all the levels—somatic, social, political—of who I am in the world and how I am moving or able to move within a certain set of parameters (limits are always there). (2016)
These mature dance-makers, although divergent in their assessments, perceive authenticity as being rooted in the quest for self-awareness. Mind, body and intuition are intertwined. Each one portrays the conditions for this self-understanding as complex, layered and ever-changing.
Tangente: Authenticity in Arts Presenting
Returning to the beginning, and to the outlook on which I have based my life’s work as co-founder and curator of Tangente, what might authenticity mean to the mission and in the everyday work-life of a such a dance presenting space? How has my quest to create a better world through the arts shaped our venue?
Upon immigrating to Montréal, Canada, in 1977, I quickly became enthralled by the power and potential of its revolutionary, innovative artistic community. But there was scant infrastructure as yet in the local dance world, and the first provincial conversations were just taking place about the idea of creating a fund to support professional dance. And so, in 1980, I joined in the movement of the Canadian Association of Artist-Run Non-Profit Centres of Canada and put together a dance collective. Together, we built a small performance space, pulling down walls and sanding the floors of a second story walk-up. It was necessary at this time to create an open, accessible space for artists to freely speak their minds and move their bodies. We imbued this new presenting organization with the authenticity of the democratic beliefs which I had carried with me for a decade. In this spirit, we would be not-for-profit, community-and-service oriented, an egalitarian and respectful workplace, resource-sharing, open to all forms of physical expression and artists of all ages, aesthetic orientations, cultural origins and outlooks.
Forty years and many challenges later, we are permanently housed in the newly constructed dance building, Le Wilder – Espace danse in downtown Montreal. Four of Montréal’s oldest dance organizations formed a cooperative agreement and forged this project slowly, over 15 years, sharing its theatre and studio spaces: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, École de danse contemporaine de Montréal, Agora de la danse and Tangente. Although an increasingly materialistic business model and organizational hierarchy have been imposed by our funders, we continue to insist that our mission is to foster aesthetic experimentation, support artistic professionalism, bring the arts to the wider community as a common good, and not per se to increase box office and other “revenue streams.” Our three theatre spaces are intimate, easy to reconfigure to promote various kinds of audience-performer relationships, offer public presentations by 40+ artistic groups each season, and designed to promote dancers’ health and spectators’ comfort.
When parting with Tangente in June 2019, I set into motion a new curatorial model: a group of five culturally diverse artist-curators tasked with power-sharing in the responsibility of programming. As I walked out the door for the last time, placing the venue into the hands of a younger generation, I felt certain that the humanistic values, integrity and progressive vision that have always formed the basis for my authentic belief system were firmly implanted in its future.
Contemplating once again our geographic interconnectedness, I would venture to say that the current importance we concede to confirming our “true” and “authentic selves” has taken on momentousness in light of the powerful effects of globalization and mobility in creating cultural uniformity and spreading disinformation. Determining who we “really” are and what we “truly” believe is a complex task and is always contextually situated. How we construct our identities is inevitably a composite of our adherence to various (local and global) groups and networks and so are the beliefs they engender. I am thinking, for instance, of how we define our community, gender, nationality, ethnicity, family, social standing and political party.
Perhaps it is only, after all, a state of mind, as Jacob Wren—creator of literature, performance and exhibitions—contends when he writes in Authenticity is a Feeling, “My performance work has been a search for authenticity, but I don’t think authenticity is something that exists. A work of art can’t be authentic, it can only feel authentic for certain people at certain times” (13). I concur. And I believe that for those of us who have adopted the vocation of artist in which passion and purpose are driving forces, our authenticities are inevitably, deeply ingrained in the beliefs and practices of our art world communities.
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*Dena Davida (PhD) for 50 years has been a dancer, performer and choreographer, curator, educator and researcher. Immigrating from the U.S.A. to Montréal, Canada (1977), she cofounded the Tangente dance presenting space (1980), CanDance touring network and Festival international de la nouvelle danse (1985). At the Université du Québec she taught dance theory and practice (1997–present) and completed her doctorate, an ethnographic study of meaning in a contemporary dance event. She published widely on dance and culture and edited two anthologies: Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the Worlds of Dance (2012) and Curating Live Arts (2018).