Monday, September 13, 2004

Dancers Doing Drama, 10 Tiny Dances 

Friday September 10th, 2004

Friday night, performing to a standing room only full house at Machineworks, 10 Tiny Dances unfolded in a curious way. Not all, but according to my count, six out of the ten Dances used the space-limiting small stage to stage 15 minute stories. Story, as in a factual or fictional account of an event or series of events (Webster’s) The emphasis here is on the term account (to explain, describe, report a version). Dance appeared as part of the six story-based performances but all six led with an individual dramatic intention. Only two performances appeared to be solely driven by dance and movement objectives. The remaining two out ten performances, namely the work of Linda Austin and Angelle Hebert were more conceptually driven pieces, and used dance as a vehicle to express their chosen concepts.

(***If you’re interested, more on my/the idea of this distinction between dance and story-telling/drama is included at the end of this entry).

Dance. Story. Dance and story? Story or dance? Distinctions like these are not always adequate or for that matter necessary, and my questioning commentary here may be no exception. But distinctions do allow us a vocabulary to talk to each other about what is presented to an audience in real time. And in the case of 10 Tiny Dances, we saw somethings on Friday night that we might begin to see in the future presented under the general heading of Dance. 10 Tiny Dances is a long running experiment by members of the Portland (mainly) dance community. Now there seems to be a shift happening; from the original formula of creating dance performance out of an encounter with limited space to a use of limited space as a creative prompt (or maybe that would be prop?)to make new work in a variety of forms, some more hybrid than others.

My observations of the changes occurring on the 10 Tiny Dance’s stage is not an attempt to say this is a good thing or a bad thing. For me, who went to see almost all of the previous 10 Tiny Dance performances, what I saw Friday night was surprising. A surprise in the sense that the majority of performances figured in “drama” as a central element.The pieces took the qualities that we usually think of as making a dance be dance, and put them in a less usual position--as background. What I am saying is this: these particular performers are people who use their bodies as instruments, they're dancers, check out their bios. Yet by what we saw on Friday night, this no longer means that everything dancers perform in will be a dance performance, even if it's called a dance peformance.

Why should you care? Think evolution and read on.

In the previous 10 Tiny Dances, most performers took the small stage space, and well, danced. What most of us would recognize and label as dance at least. While in between these space-limited and often space-defying 10 tiny dances there appeared an occasional variance in the form of performance.

Like Linda Austin’s work, who is a constant in the 10 Tiny Dances line-up. Linda dances and produces works that contain dance, but do not rely on dance alone for expression. Her work appeared again on Friday night in the form of 8 performers in white baggy astronaut looking suits with snaps to attach themselves to each other crowding and uncrowding the small stage. Linda, in her own astronaut costume, sat off to one side on a stool. She used a small microphone to add her own soundings to the original score by Eubanks, Jenkins, Keogh and Sundstrom. Linda, who in her solo performance in January of 2004 (The Big Real), showed off her skills at making music on the ukulele, scratched, rubbed and kissed the microphone in her own distinct Linda Austin mind-stretching and humorous methodology for Friday’s performance. Linda makes/uses/creates dances within her performances, but what she usually offers are different than what one views in something billed as a dance performance. Friday night was no exception and the audience was treated to a virtuoso Linda invention.

More dancers than not on Friday followed suit. They created performances that conceptual experiments coupled with image making (like Linda), or they were short story-telling events. This array of performances was out of the box of what I think most people expect of an art event billing itself as a dance performance. An example of a performance that falls more on the side of storytelling than dance was Cydney Wilkes and Mike Barber’s Friday night offering. As individual artists, they are two dancers of remarkable agility and skill. And together, they are something almost otherworldly in their collaborative dance/movement performances (see Cydney Wilkes’s Penta–her project of seasonal outdoor performances with Mike Barber, to witness more of this pair of virtuoso collaborators doing their thing). Friday they took the small stage carrying a moveable fence prop, costumed in school uniform garb. They proceeded to use their body movements and the fence to tell the story of (act out?) 15 minutes in the life of two dogs. Or maybe two school children imagining or dreaming themselves as two dogs. Either way, there was more story, more reliance on a narrative focus, dramatic enhancements and staging than dance this time around. An accounting of dog behind fence in a 15 minute cacophony of magnificent wiggle, jump, sleep, tear, tease, climb, and stick it in your mouth.

(Please see the early TBA blog entry by Lisa Radon for (great) descriptions and commentary on all of the individual 10 performances.)

One of the clear exceptions to dramatic storytelling was Randee Raufve’s pure, beautiful movement upon movement set; parts of it set to music, other parts done in silence. All of the dance punctuated by dips, leanings, extended arms and flying hair with a leap off the stage into the just-this-moment-appearing-out-of-nowhere arms of Mike Barber. Her performance incited the senses into believing the room was filling up with wings, breath, risk, trust and what deep consideration looks like when expressed in the resting standing body alone with itself.

And consider…

Mike Barber’s piece, he as dance choreographer, with the shining sexy trio of dancers Robyn Conroy, Jenn Gierada and Margretta Hansen dancing up a smoky storm like some dames out of a 1920/30/40’s musical (a form that was able to sneak dancing into our lives through the mediums of plays and films). The staging suggested a place, a story, an attitude, but relied on the dancing and the Dancers animated faces and gestures to turn us into an audience member in some club/dive/speakeasy. We were mesmerized by what these bodies were doing, dancing with each other, and with us over time and space. We didn't care what the story was, even if there was one. We just wanted the dancing to go on and on.

All this brings me to a place of wondering. What’s next for 10 Tiny Dances? Expansion is good, and evolution inevitable "they" say. Especially if you are going to ask people to approach the same format, like 10 Tiny Dances does, with fresh eyes and a fresh body every time. ‘Do not repeat’ cannot help but become the over-riding credo. Maybe we can think of it as a variation on Merce Cunningham’s set-up; scoring the music, set and choreography separate from each other and calling whatever arrives on the stage the next new dance. As long as the elements of the stage size, the gathering of talented dancer/performers and a ready audience show up, we will know it as 10 Tiny Dances. Then we can set ourselves up to observe what occurs like good experimental scientists. Readying ourselves for the unexpected to unfold before us.

We can mix it all up, mush it all together, pull it apart, filter out a piece from here and put another piece from there along side it. Mix that media and mediums. And then call it what you will. I like calling it dance evolution. If art not only expresses culture, but also creates culture, could this mean we, as Americans, are evolving toward a more complex cultural state? One in which the use of labels diminishes, while the intricate layers of meaning and form interest us on a daily basis with art helping to lead the way? I for one, sure hope this is so.

(And as a sidebar: I am voting my hope this coming November, how about you?).

My thoughts referred to at the beginning of this blog on a bigger picture:
***In modern or postmodern Dance of a conceptual or experimental nature, one-way people are invited to enter the dance piece is through the lens of their own personal story. Something in “me” resonates with what is being embodied on the stage and that meeting creates a reference to what I am experiencing. In other words, audience puts a story onto the Dance, and this is the great place where choreographer, dancers, set and audience meet; joined in creating something more than either the work or the audience could do alone.

And of course toward the other end of the wide dance form continuum, there are the modern and postmodern Dance pieces that focus an audience's attention toward the physical expressions of precision, technique and form. The bodies on stage become honed instruments of form alone. Something in “me” revels in the body’s ability to express such pure and unencumbered-by- meaning-movement. Like the bird that swoops and loops because it can, audience meets the Dance in an experience of the freedom from our worldly concerned self and rubs up against the awe inspiring appreciation of what the body alone can do…because it can.

And then, there’s theater. The vehicle for the dramatics of story. Even in post-modern theater, the word theater still strongly announces to an audience that somewhere in the performance they are going to experience a story--an accounting of something that can be retold. (Although arguably as part of post-modern theater there is the fine array of experimental theater pieces that may or may not have a story attached, working themselves out more like conceptual dances or experiments, non-linear flow of action pieces or a million other hybrid or newly discovered forms.)

And none of this is to say that conceptual, formal and theater/story-telling drama cannot exist exceptionally well within the confines of one piece of staged art. Hence the descriptive categories of performance art (think Miranda July, Ann Carlson), lecture performance (Rhodessa Jones is one exceptional example), danceStory, Movement essays, and dance theater (a form that PICA brought to Portland in 2003 in a series of international performers from Brazil, China and Australia—check out PICA’s archived material for videos/words on these performance. An amazing series of work.)

Lilian Gael

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