What If We Just Dance? An Example of Interactive Criticism

Paraskevi Tektonidou*

Abstract

The project What If We Just Dance was performed in a number of Athenian secondary schools before it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The performance was created as an exploration to bring together contemporary dance techniques, such as release and contact improvisation, with street dance. Its aim was to capture the young audience’s attention and curiosity by triggering associations and dissociations. The feedback session after the performance was structured as an open discussion, in the form of interactive theatre criticism. This kind of reciprocal theatrical criticism relocates the role of the viewer and hence creates a space that transforms the act of learning into a process of emancipation, echoing Jacques Rancière’s thinking on art and education. In other words, the introduction of contemporary art and criticism into public education led the students to the ongoing act of becoming politically aware.
Keywords: dance criticism, contemporary dance, Rancière, education, emancipation, young audiences

Thessaloniki, February 2014: three young boys aged twelve present a choreography based on Rosas Danst Rosas by Anne Teressa de Keersmaeker/Rosas. One year later, in the same school, about forty pupils form a flash-mob in the schoolyard. June 2017, six grade students present a contemporary dance performance.  April 2018, pupils aged eight to twelve re-enact Pina Bausch’s Nelken line. These are some recent moments of my life as a music teacher in primary public schools where I have worked since 2000.

Over this period, I began to build into my teaching improvisational, active music listening-through-the-body, influenced by my personal experience as an amateur dancer. For the last sixteen years, I have been attending contemporary dance and improvisation classes, and I wanted to share with children the joy that I receive while dancing and the beneficial experience of embodied listening to music. Meeting thousands of children over the years, I have found that by the age of twelve, most youngsters have not been to either a classical or contemporary music concert or a contemporary dance performance, even though almost all of them have attended museums and traditional theatre performances.`

When choreographer Stella Fotiadi invited me to work with her in creating a contemporary dance performance for young audiences, I accepted the invitation with excitement. Our aim was to produce a show that would be challenging for young audiences, capturing their attention while at the same time triggering their curiosity and interest.

Inspired by Jacques Rancière’s insights into spectatorship as a “normal situation” where we “also learn and teach, act and know,” we designed a feedback conversation based on the principles of engagement and equality of intelligence (Emancipated Spectator 17).

The Background of the Project

Contemporary theatre production in Greece is wide and aesthetically varied. Most of these productions follow older theatrical traditions, including the “classical” form of representational narrative, while at times embedding some interesting innovative techniques. At the same time, there are theatre directors and radical collectives who are breaking new ground both in dramaturgical structure and in ways of staging. Theatre for children and teenagers follows both trends.

School visits to those theatres, once or twice a year, are part of the Greek public-school curriculum. Since few school educators are familiar with contemporary art forms, they choose to attend performances solely for educational purposes rather than for their cutting-edge aesthetics. The experience of these young audiences is limited to attending the performance, without participating in any kind of feedback process organized by the troupe. Sometimes, after the performance, a follow up discussion may take place back at school between educators and students, about the topics of the dramatic text, rather than its realization on stage.

Whereas dramatic productions frequently use a written text as their starting point, contemporary choreography has historically been based on originality, exploration, and experimentation. For an audience whose expectations might be based on conventional ideas about dance performance, watching contemporary choreographic works can sometimes be puzzling or confusing. Throughout the history of choreography, beholders have become familiar with innovation and novelty, not only because of the persistence of the artists but also because critics and theoreticians have steadily created a language to talk about it.

What if we just dance?

Choreographic approaches are as abundant as professional choreographers, and each one of them is searching for an idiomatic, singular, recognizable style following a different path. One of these paths is to explore the in-between spaces that emerge from the blending/mix of different genres and forms. In 2019, the choreographer Stella Fotiadi, in collaboration with dancers Anastasia Valsamaki, Anna Anousaki and Alexandros Laskaratos, with myself as dramaturg, created a dance performance with the title What If We Just Dance? which followed this route of merging different dance and musical genres.

What If We Just Dance? is a dance performance created under the aegis and with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Duncan Dance Research Centre, and it is part of a cultural program for teenagers, running under the same title. The performance was developed as a free program, to be followed by a group feedback discussion as a form of interactive theatre criticism, so as to invite the young viewers into the realm of contemporary choreography while working within their perceptual abilities. The event was scheduled to take place in a number of secondary schools. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project was abruptly halted in March 2020.

Ana Anousaki, Anastasia Valskamaki, Stella Fotiadi, Alexandros Laskaratos. Photo: Vasia Anagnostopoulou

What If We Just Dance? lasts about twenty minutes, and it is designed to be presented in the schoolyard. After ten minutes of dancing in silence, a brief live body percussion section introduces a live version of the song Truth by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Vivaldi’s vibrant “Allegro” from Cello Sonata no 5 in E minor follows immediately after, in an original and then a mixed version (mixed by Nikos Diminakis). The four dancers, with their light, agile and flexible bodies, jump, turn, spin, swivel, wave, flow. They touch one another constructing ephemeral body sculptures. The choreography contains some theatricality without being descriptive. There are recognizable gestures, open to a range of interpretations. Sometimes, the dance is funny in an abstract, embodied way. Lifts and handstands are embedded in the dance along with other acrobatic movements.

It was at these moments that the school children showed signs of surprise and admiration with exclamation and applause. Teenagers appeared to be less responsive, though observation of their reactions and facial expressions revealed excitement, curiosity and even astonishment. We built on the function of curiosity and astonishment to challenge our young beholders to engage with the performance and actively participate in the feedback session.

Just before the end of the choreography, a “dance battle” takes place, incorporating many elements of street dance. The battle ends with a big energetic release, as the perfectly synchronized dancers perform flying lifts in silence. At this point, it should be noted that a pre-text was sent to each school prior to the event to help prepare the children.  Most importantly, this was sent to encourage each student to engage with the performance and to interpret it in their own way.

Anna Anousaki Alexandros Laskaratos. Photo: Vasia Anagnostopoulou

What happens when people are together? How do they react? How do they relate? How do they meet? And what is more, what place do dance and music have in these encounters? What If We Just Dance? is a performance that explores these questions on stage, scrutinizing the possibilities of these meetings. Four dancers create the conditions of “togetherness” while meshing and desynchronizing. They approach and move away, standing near each other and deserting each other, balancing together in fragile schemes and dividing into trio, duets and solos. 

These mostly bodily actions do not prevent the depiction of a mood, an emotion or a story. Or do they? Are the boy and girl a couple that we see on stage or just two dancers playing? Are the lifts, the handstands and the flights at the edge of balance just dance techniques, or are they images of friends standing by one another? When they dance, are we dancing along, or are we thinking up stories? Or maybe we do both? Both the stories and the dance exist here, and it is up to each one of us to choose what we shall find when diving into the performance. We might be enchanted, touched, admiring or wondering. The only thing to do is to accept the game set by the performance. A game that is searching while dancing: what will happen or what is happening when we are together? A game that started with the question: What if we just dance?

Acknowledging the fact that the majority of the pupils had probably never attended a contemporary dance performance before, we wanted their first experience of contemporary choreography to take the form of an open encounter.  We hold the opinion that everyone should have access to contemporary art, rejecting the belief that experiencing contemporary art could cause bewilderment or, worse, the sense of exclusion. Also, we wanted to create a performance that was, at the same time, innovative and alienating, while being strangely familiar.

Our aim was to capture our viewers’ interest, attention and curiosity by using dramaturgical tactics, like combining eclectic dance material and music with silence. At the same time, we wanted our young viewers to—even momentarily—feel at home by including some recognizable street dance in this eclectic material. Moreover, by adding theatricality to the dance, we aimed to trigger the children’s imagination by simultaneously activating thoughts about the praxis of togetherness and social interaction that was the theme of the performance.

This togetherness was enacted into/through the bodies of the dancers, and this action reverberated in the bodies of the young beholders. Although we were not ignoring the effect of kinaesthetic responses, especially when the performer’s bodies were flying, we did not emphasise it, being aware that the majority of our young spectators were not kinaesthetically attuned through dance or somatic practices. These dramaturgical devices were intended to create space for references that directly or indirectly resonated with the teenagers’ experiences. At the same time, shifting from familiarity to alienation when dancing in silence, mixing baroque music with electro, blending different dance genres, interchanging contact improvisation with theatricality, and so on, enhanced an arbitrary sense of distance.

Anastasia Valskamaki, Stella Fotiadi, Anna Anousaki, Alexandros Laskaratos. Photo: Vasia Anagnostopoulou

“Distance,” Rancière writes, “is inherent in the performance itself, insofar as it subsists itself as a spectacle, an autonomous thing, between the idea of the artist and the sensation or comprehension of the spectator” (The Emancipated Spectator 14). For the French philosopher, this distance should not be abolished through explanation[1] by a wise schoolmaster or a superior artist (The Ignorant Schoolmaster 4). On the contrary, distance—“the normal condition of any communication” (The Emancipated Spectator 10)—should be crossed willingly by a curious student/spectator. This crossing is an intellectual act, an act of learning and after all learning is about communication. The schoolmaster/artist should create the frame and the conditions for the experience of discovering and more, motivating the process of learning.

The only possible way for meaningful, emancipatory learning is when the student/spectator observes what is before her, relates it with her previous experiences and knowledge, speaks about it and, in doing so, discovers the vocabulary to express it (Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator 10). The unfolding of thoughts and the reasoning that is the praxis of expression is comparable with the act of translation. This approach presupposes the assertion that a “shared power of equality of intelligence” is a given. Rancière understands equality of intelligence as the capacity “of anonymous people” that is exercised through travelling the distance “by an unpredictable interplay of associations and dissociations” (17). Keeping in mind Rancière’s idea of emancipatory pedagogy, the feedback session after the performance was organized to frame, encourage and activate both these acts of communication and translation, presupposing our young beholders’ equality of intelligence as a condition.

Theatre Criticism

Theatre criticism here refers to the act of promoting a public discussion that entails interpreting, analyzing and evaluating performance, usually in written texts. Once, the critic was considered to be an expert who was judging and evaluating the artwork. Nowadays, as the landscape of the theatre world is changing, the role of the critique is also relocated. Savas Patsalidis, an established Greek theatre critic, sceptically observes this relocation in an article called “Landscapes of Theatre Criticism and the Death of Evaluation” (originally in Greek, “Τοπία θεατρικής κριτικής και το «τέλος» της αξιολόγησης”). He describes the “portrait of the new critic” as “a junction between the dramaturg, the archivist, the collaborator, the journalist, and if it arises—though no longer required—the critic evaluator.”[2] This criticism seems to be referring less to the act of critiquing and more to the act of reviewing. As Sanjoy Roy, a Guardian reviewer puts it: “reviewing has a different connotation from criticism”; while a critique is considered to be more analytical, theoretical or contextual, in a review “you revisit a performance, writing as a witness to it” (Tektonidou 3). The prefix “re” in the words review and revisit has the meaning of looking over again, or going back. Rita Felski, academic and critic observes that prefix “re” has the “ability to recontextualize, reconfigure, or recharge perception” (17).

At the same time, internet access has multiplied the published reviews and voices heard online and professional critics are now, as Patsalidis notes, “critics among hundreds of other critics who use the web” (“Landscapes” 80). This recognizes that there is not a unique, restricted way of understanding, interpreting, analyzing and evaluating a performance but rather multiple ways of attending, experiencing it and arguing about it. This free access to participation in the digital public realm generated for some years a “digital optimism” (Turner 61) that took “media’s democratic function for granted” (56).

According to Means, democracy involves a very particular kind of participation that entails exercising citizenship as a constantly active practice and not accepting it as defined strictly by the content and depth of legal rights and obligations (28). This ongoing act of “political becoming” is central to any form of democratic politics (40) but also to theatre criticism.  So, hopefully, this new  paradigm of theatre criticism, which encourages understanding through acts of self-reflection, triggers questions through activating memory, challenges previous knowledge and experience and, in this case, adds a public discussion that entails constantly re-contextualizing the art form, could be seen as an attempt to replace an authoritative criticism with a more practical, democratic and contingently emancipatory one. Moreover, when theatre criticism is practiced as a live and thus interactive dialogue, this democratization is enacted not only because everyone may articulate an opinion, but mainly through the collective act of conversation.

The Feedback Session

After the performance, the dancers addressed the young viewers’ questions and comments, directly encouraging the audience to share their own interpretations and impressions. More than once, the first pupil’s question was: “what kind of dance is this?” Performers answered by re-contextualizing the question, “this is not a kind of dance but a dance performance. In this performance there are many kinds of dance, have you recognized some?” Most of the teenagers talked about street dance, whereas a person who takes contemporary dance lessons, relating her experiences with the performance, responded: “I noticed that you have used release-technique, haven’t you?”

When the questions were personal (like “do you love what you do?”), the dancers gave concrete answers. However, the majority of the questions were concerning sign-creating or meaning-making:

“Was there a story?”
“Why did you choose to dance both in silence and with music?”
“Is there a concrete meaning?”
“Did it have references to everyday life?”
“Where did you choose this material from?”

The performers reversed/answered these questions with another question, such as:

“What do you believe?”
“What did you feel?”
“What do you think?”

Alexandros Laskaratos, Anastasia Valskamaki, Stella Fotiadi, Anna Anusaki. Photo: Vasia Anagnostopoulou

Surprisingly, these last counter-questions did not cause any collective bewilderment. On the contrary, the students embraced the open dialogue, and an interesting interchange arose. Some viewers found it awkward attending a silent performance, while others thought it was challenging, surprising and even emotional. They discerned images and acts of love, relationships, feelings, anger, friendship, competition, antagonism, reconciliation.

In one of the feedback conversations that included over two hundred pupils and educators, this “what do you think?” question set in motion an interesting colloquy. An educator/professor triggered by this response asked a provocative question about the ambiguity and the indeterminacy of contemporary art in general:

Can I play devil’s advocate and ask you a question? It is a question that concerns modern and contemporary art in general. Why shouldn’t I as a spectator know in advance what I am going to see? Or why shouldn’t I recognize something that is concrete? Why should I painstakingly and continuously be searching?[3]

The conversation had a smooth flow with short interruptions for applause and cheers. Even those that seemed to agree with this implicit critique of modern art were engaged in the conversation that followed the question. 

After the applause, two teenagers responded to their professor’s provocative question. The first responded immediately: “I think the answer to this question is: this is the meaning of art. [Applause] . . . that we have to imagine and think of what we see; and that this is the only way to gain more pleasure, to enjoy more. I believe that is boring to know in advance. It is boring not to use your imagination.”

After some minutes, another girl added:

I think that it is not a bad thing to ask for superficiality, to seek for art that shows everything and does not demand researching. This is happening . . . especially in realistic painting. There are things you can see quite clearly, but there are also symbols. Maybe music, poetry or someone’s favourite lyrics look superficial, simple and trivial, but there is always something else “behind.” Even in dance, in ballet, for example in Swan Lake, there is a clear story, but there are meanings hidden within. It is the same in contemporary dance. Maybe the meaning that you want to communicate is not so clear, but there is a meaning.

[Applause and cheers]

How much distance have these young persons travelled? The first comment was like an argument in favour of the question of what do you feel. Advocating the prompting of imagination is like feeling empowered to compose, as Rancière poetically writes, “her own poem with the elements of the poem that is before her” (Emancipated 13). Moreover, associating the triggering of imagination with pleasure, she reveals the connection of positive feelings with understanding. After all, people learn better if they have fun.

The second student’s comment reveals the act of “crossing the distance” through relating “what she knows” with “what she does not yet know.” She has attended ballet, seen realistic paintings, heard music, read poetry and lyrics.

The whole conversation was structured in a form of open questions, dialogue and exploration. To paraphrase Rancière, the dancers, after presenting a performance to the young viewers, wanted these young spectators to recognize and respond to it: “not as students or as learned men but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you: under the sign of equality.” This way, the feedback conversation did not produce equality as a result but rather enacted equality as a process. Our starting point is that this equality is the way to emancipation. It is “what opens the way to adventure in the land of knowledge” (The Ignorant Schoolmaster 27).

Conclusion

While preparing our next performance, with hesitation about the evolution and the restrictions of a new lockdown because of COVID-19, we are re-examining our work with a desire to improve it. Bearing in mind that some pupils feel uncomfortable speaking in front of others, we are searching for different, more expanded ways of eliciting feedback. Our greatest desire would be to organize an embodied, improvisational feedback session, although it is easier to improvise with a smaller audience; we found it almost impossible with the larger audiences of 200 people or more.

In an attempt to include the shy students who are unwilling to speak in public in the feedback session, we are currently preparing questionnaires with multiple-choice and open-ended questions. We are even thinking of providing an option to express responses anonymously with painting, or to answer in a fragmented way with scattered words or phrases. Closing the feedback session, these documentations could be displayed for everyone to observe. For young spectators to feel confident enough to become narrators, overcoming the “likes and dislikes” form of commentary, we need more work like this to be done. Not only does it give young beholders the opportunity to experience contemporary art, but also it makes space for their discoveries.

In any case, I feel that actions that introduce contemporary art and criticism into public education are not only important but also urgent. Not only because, as is commonly acknowledged, engaging with art helps children, among others, to develop creative problem-solving skills, cultivate empathy, sharpen their observation skills, connect with their own culture and contemporary world, hone their aesthetic skills, widen their perception (Ebert et al.). But mainly because practices like the one described in this article try literally to support the claim that everyone should have access to contemporary art, not as a passive spectator but as an emancipated one.


Endnotes

[1] The logic of explanation, where a schoolmaster “makes a sequence of reasoning in order to explain the sequence of reasoning that constitutes the book,” or in our case, the performance, is for the French philosopher equivalent to pedagogical stultification (Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster 4)

[2] Translation mine.

[3] Personal notes by the writer. 


Bibliography

Ebert, Marina, Jessica D. Hoffmann, Zorana Ivcevic, Christine Phan, and Marc A. Brackett. “Teaching Emotion and Creativity Skills Through Art: A Workshop for Children.” The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving, vol. 25, no. 2, 2015, pp. 23–35.

Means, Alexander. “Jacques Rancière, Education and The Art of Citizenship.” Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies, vol. 33, no.1, 2011, pp. 28–47, doi:10.1080/10714413.2011.550187.

Patsalidis, Savas, “Landscapes of Theatre Criticism and the End of Evaluation” [«Τοπία θεατρικής κριτικής και το «τέλος» της αξιολόγησης»]. Chartis [Χάρτης], 10, 2016.

—. “From the Uncritical Certainties of Modernism to the Critical Uncertainties of Postmodernism: Reviewing Theatre in Greece.” Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes, edited by Duška Radosavljević, Methuen, 2016, pp. 68–84.

Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford UP, 1991.

—. The Emancipated Spectator. Translated by Gregory Elliott, Verso, 2009.

Turner, Graeme. “The Media and Democratization.” The Routledge Companion to Global Popular Culture, edited by Toby Miller, Routledge, 2015, pp. 56–66.

Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique Chicago. U of Chicago P, 2015.

Tektonidou, Paraskevi. “Contemporary is More about the Mentality than the Temporality: A Conversation with Sanjoy Roy,” Choros International Dance Journal, Supplement 2, Fall 2020, pp. 1-9.


*Paraskevi Tektonidou (Athens, Greece) holds a degree in Flute and Musicology and an MA in Drama and Performing Theory. Currently, she is a doctoral student in the Athens School of Fine Arts, specializing in contemporary Greek choreography and dramaturgy. Her research investigates the creative process, the act of performance, spectatorship and perception. Concurrently, she works as a music teacher in education. Since 2016, she has cooperated as a dance reviewer with various online cultural sites. Since 2018, she is a member of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics. Email address: paraskevitektonidou@gmail.com.

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