“What We See” from learning to loveDANCEmore volume 8

The latest edition of our performance journal, edited by New Media Coordinator Samuel Hanson, will arrive this coming week. Volume 8, displacement, features the work of many talented artists and critics from Utah and beyond. It’ll be available at Daughters of Mudson, get your tickets here. To whet your appetite, here is a piece by Ashley Anderson, which deals with how we see dance from ballet to Monica Bill Barnes.

What We See: Thoughts on Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes and The Rite of Spring

Several weeks back I got to see Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass perform Monica’s choreography as part of Ira Glass’s show at Kingsbury Hall, and later on I got to see Ballet West’s Rite of Spring. Both experiences left me asking questions about what frames my experience as a viewer, and also placing myself in the position of other audience members. The writing below is my way of grappling with my identity in relation to my peers in an audience. I am trying to see what they see, which is a task I don’t always consider while writing (or thinking) about dance.

I have long loved Ira Glass’s radio show This American Life on NPR. The show transports me to other parts of the country, but also to empathetic and interior parts of myself. When I had finished my MFA and was feeling extremely deflated at the difference between the work I was creating in the supportive environment of a liberal arts college versus my first apartment in Philadelphia, This American Life was one of the only things I enjoyed about my week trudging to and from a day job as a paralegal.

When I learned that Ira Glass was sharing the work of Monica Bill Barnes as part of This American Life performances and later, planning an entire tour, I got heated. My feelings about her works I’ve seen are best summarized by a piece by Andrew Boynton in the New Yorker (November 13, 2012). The title of the article is “Dance that tries too hard”. I’ve always felt that the jokes were just to get a laugh, and that it made me feel talked (or danced) down to. In addition to my hesitance about the creative work itself, I became frustrated that Ira Glass got to  “discover” modern dance for all these people in the audience. In descriptions of the project, modern dance, a vast tradition, was deemed generally unlikeable or un-gettable, by Glass himself. It made me wonder why people couldn’t discover something without it having been curated as extremely palatable for them. What if, instead, I was the person curating someone’s first viewing of modern dance through some of my most favorite things…

…Emily Wexler with walnuts pouring out of her skirt in Yvonne Meier’s Mad Heidi or better yet, her black boots narrowly missing colorful glass bottles in her own solo Fact or Fancy inspired by her grandmother’s radio program of the same name.

Naughty Bits by Jen McGinn where some dancers wear tails, feathers or priest collars while performing the most difficult and intricate musical patterning I can imagine.

…Children’s Dance Theatre teenagers embodying Water Study and trying to explain to their parents the importance of silence and breathing.

…Katie Meehan lying on the floor listening to the Beach Boys playing out of a seashell covered television; Leah Nelson & Cortney McGuire pulling dresses over pregnant bellies before a re-staging of a duet they made as fivefour; Linda Denise Fisher-Harrell performing Cry in rehearsal in the smallest studio at the American Dance Festival; Dawn Springer breathing life into cover song after cover song in a token of one’s affection; Tara McArthur first performing Duet for Ririe-Woodbury, looking so unbelievably cool; Miguel Gutierrez working on Retrospective Exhibitionist in the small basement studio of the Dana Science Building at Hollins University as my childhood best friend Sarah Crass strides through having no prior knowledge about the artist she will witness and no suspicion of how well-known this piece will become…

Why would those introductions to modern dance be things that anyone would get “less” than highly choreographed jokes? They might not be inherently better than the introduction provided at Kingsbury Hall that night, but would they be as awful as Glass made the rest of “dance” sound?

A week or so later, in the Capitol Theater I watched Ballet West’s The Rite of Spring. The evening featured the title work by Nicolo Fonte, Forgotten Land by Jiri Kylian and Divertimento No. 15 by Balanchine. I experienced the same phenomena of an audience viewing something fresh while I saw different things living inside the dancing.

In the opening piece by Kylian, the audience gasped as the dancers did backbends or offered any kind of yielding in their partnering. What they found surprising I found to be comforting, as I could see inside it the dancing of Jose Limón and Helen Tamiris, or Alvin Ailey’s careful groupings, Doris Humphrey and every other modern dance choreographer who was inspired by the Shakers. While I know the piece is uniquely inspired by visual art, I can see inside of it numerous dances that share the same themes or physicality.

This isn’t to say the choreography is derivative because it wasn’t, it was complex and fascinating. But, in my viewing of both concerts, dances became houses for memories of other performance experiences. And in both cases, the people around me seemed, for the most part, to be watching something new, something singular rather than simultaneous. It almost gave me envy, of what I might experience if I had seen somewhat less.

After Kylian, an overlong Balanchine piece rolled around. The friends I was with asked how I could possibly like something so boring and conventional. My only reply was that based on my experience in ballet class, it seemed like it would be fun to do. I’ve always loved the slightly off kilter petite allegro of Balanchine because I’m good at it; that’s why I was watching his work enthusiastically. Maybe Balanchine is my Monica Bill Barnes, something I find infectious or likable despite my objections to the particular hierarchical structures of ballet including endless pas de deux and stationary corps. It’s something I like just because it makes me personally happy.

Ballet West’s final piece, a new Rite of Spring by Nicolo Fonte, was another exercise in viewing a real life performance simultaneously with other things, namely, Pina Bausch’s dancers running through the dirt and my toddler son watching a T-Rex brutally murder a brontosaurus on a VHS tape of Fantasia in the living room of my childhood home. For others in the audience this Rite, leather clad and featuring an industrial set characteristic of the choreographer, was their first taste of a narrative that, to me, was already distinctly experienced.

Despite it’s newness, ballet audiences can recognize The Rite of Spring the same way they recognize a Bolero, as a system where new ideas can play out rather than a purely new work. I remember in college learning that during the reconstruction of the original Rite, pointe shoes were examined to explore the steps. We all called it “Ballet CSI” but really it’s more magical than that, and speaks to what I’m after here–– that steps performed fleetingly do hold a lot more of a moment inside them than we offer credit for when we engage in conversations about the way in which dances disappear in time. While this wasn’t my favoriteRite, it does remind me just how many exist and that’s a kind of gift.

Despite my preferences, or those of the New Yorker writer mentioned above, the audience at Kingsbury Hall and Capitol Theater on those nights seemed to be eating up what was presented, whether it was because of a witty radio host or an astute artistic director. The landscape of performance is inevitably dominated by what we are told is likable or good rather than what we may find on our own.

As I write this I can already predict the response from my peers: “but don’t you think Ira Glass opened the doors for people to think differently about dance?” My answer is unequivocally no–– it only opens doors for people to think differently about Monica Bill Barnes, a person they’ve now been given permission to understand. I significantly doubt that anyone left Kingsbury Hall choosing to look into what modern dance offerings were made by comparable regional artists. Similarly, I’m curious if Ballet West audiences were motivated as viewers to seek out other Rites, or if they simply enjoyed the work of Nicolo Fonte, who will make many more ballets for the company, then left the theater.

All of that is fine. Beyond my curiosity over my relationship with other dance goers, I ultimately left both theaters glad that people enjoyed dance. It’s the same way I felt when my young students at the American Dance Festival enjoyed Pilobolus. You couldn’t have payed me to watch the concert, but when something seems magical or fresh to you, it just is.

Ashley Anderson is a choreographer based in SLC. Her recent work has been presented locally at the Rose Wagner, the Rio Gallery, the BYU Museum of Art, Finch Lane, the City Library, the Ladies’ Literary Club, the Masonic Temple and Urban Lounge.