I think a lot about the power of word choice in describing things – how the words used to mark an idea, object, person, etc., define and limit the possibilities of what a thing can be. And how the search for the most appropriate word/phrase is an exercise in specificity, meaning, and nuance – an additive process that increases the density of context and understanding around an idea.
Words are power. Who gets to speak?
What does it say when we call dance a “performing” art? What does this say about what dance can be and who gets to do it?
Performing is such a small part of the dance world, but it defines so much of the field, particularly to those outside of it. When I was young, all I wanted to do was dance with a company and tour all around the world. My goal was to be on stage, but I learned at an early age that that was entirely dependent on someone else’s choice.
Being on stage is not something that you choose. It is something for which you must be chosen.
What this means is that the dancers who get to perform are the ones that fit someone else’s aesthetic. Someone else’s taste. What someone else likes. Consider too that whether a choreographer has her or his work produced also depends on someone else’s choice. Having my work produced on-stage is not something that I choose, it is something for which I must be chosen.
This is not to say that there aren’t other ways to be onstage, like free-lancing or self-producing, but I would not discover that until much later in my career. More often than not, as a free-lancer, you are either invited or apply for opportunities to perform your work.
A complicated thing about performing is that a choreographer’s aesthetic is irretrievably tangled up with the physicality of real people. So when an artist’s work is performed, those dancers represent Dancers to the audience, and that dance represents Dance to the audience.
Now this is fine if your aesthetic lines up, but what if it doesn’t? And given that we are dealing with a very small number of people’s aesthetic, the chances of fitting in are pretty slim, not even mentioning the demographics of power in dance. Who gets to be a dancer? What gets to be called dance? Whose story is it really?
There is a category for me: Mid-Career Artist. When I was an Emerging Artist, I always wondered what it would feel like to be mid-career, but I find it feels pretty much the same except that I know a little more, I’ve done a little more, but I still feel like I’m discovering myself as a person and as an artist. And one of the things I’ve discovered is that my relationship with performance has changed over time, and that I am no longer invested in my identity as a performer. Or at least as a performer in a traditional sense – in a company, on a proscenium stage, with lights and technology, in front of an audience that knows when to clap. Not that I don’t enjoy performing on a stage, it just takes up a much smaller part of my experience at this point in my career. My body is not a performing body in the way it was when I was younger, and I have a different relationship with virtuosity, both physically and philosophically.
I am no less a dancer now than I was then. I am simply interested in dance in different ways. I am interested in what it reveals to myself, more than what it reveals to an audience, though I don’t mind if people watch, and I am always interested in sharing. I want it to be less precious, less rarified, more mundane and human, which is why I am so drawn to site-specific work and finding different ways for an audience to engage with dance.
Dance is a way to exercise and challenge perception. Dance is a way of negotiating truth through physical experience and proprioception. Dance is a way of connecting us to our own humanity as well as each other through the physical act of moving. Dance is a way of reminding us of the miracle it is to be alive – thinking, sensing and feeling.
There is so much more to dance than performing. I recently read this article that really resonated with me about a program for a mid-career artist residency program at Banff. (I'm also pasting it below.)
The issue of performance came up during the residency, and more importantly, the expectation of performance and the belief that performance is the most desired outcome from a creative process. And what happened when artists chose not to place performance at the center of their experience in the residency. (Spoiler: they were asked to leave.)
The problem I have with this is that I know how to make a dance. But I don't know how to make a dance that I don't know how to make, and frankly, I am more interested in figuring out how to make that dance. I have no idea what that dance will look like, and in order to figure it out, I need time, without the model of performance waiting around, asking to play. As a mid-career artist, I am questioning everything again, and I have a desire to dig deep into the possibilities of movement as a way to exercise and challenge perception.
I am lucky to be an educator because it anchors me to the field in practical ways - teaching technique and choreographing works. It gives me a reference point as I renegotiate my relationship with Performance and Dance. Which I now call a moving art.