Without really trying to sound like a pseudo-intellectual college sophomore trying to impress my study partner at a finals late night study session, I honestly and non-rhetorically ask the question “What is the purpose of dance and who defines what dance is anyway?” Now, now, do not assume we are about to embark on a mishmash of convoluted “artsy” speak. It is a more down to earth and practical question that is asked on a daily basis, whether they are aware of it or not, by the masses that purchase tickets to see a performance.
One such cluster of people are those who attend the Sugar Show every year. I am not going to go into the history of the event, we are capable of finding out this information on our own at the Sugar Space Studio for the Arts website. Give their site some digital traffic, better yet start a Wikipedia entry. The basic premise of the event, now in its third year, is to provide the opportunity for emerging artists to show works in progress, give those artists feedback and to build audiences. I have had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of the Sugar Show since its debut. In those three years, I have gone from finalist to winner (alongside my friend and collaborator Molly Heller) to now panelist. For these past three years I have witness the budding of this program. My most recent participation with this program has left me in a quandary.
I felt a bit overwhelmed preparing for my panelist position because I knew I was going into this event with specific aesthetic prejudices. Though the goal of the judge is to be as objective as possible, there’s still a sense of subjectivity. The overarching idea of this show is to highlight new, emerging voices- in a way to see the future of dance in this city. No matter how I prepared for the event, there was a sense of inevitable failure in my unbiased decision making. I tried my best to stay away from looking reviews and comments made about the two preliminaries leading up this year’s final. I wanted to see it on a blank canvas. Having been a winner in 2009, I know there’s a lot riding on the final results. It is the difference between spending yet another year tirelessly developing work when you have spare time or being supported financially and administratively to produce a full show, as was the case for Molly and I.
I am not sure what the other panelists wanted to see that night. I knew what I was seeking. I craved new movement styles and experimental ideas. For someone to truly push the envelope.Though we had the POEM rubric (Potential, Originality, Execution and Merit, **this rubric was devised by Neta Pulvermacher, developer of the first A.W.A.R.D. show in NY**) and several questions to ponder as we watched the performance to assist ours and the audience’s evaluation, it still came down to how I was feeling at that moment in time. I am completely aware of problematics of performance assessment. Peter Eversmann’s work, at Universiteit van Amsterdam, has observed and written brilliantly about the incorporation of societal and personal developments in theatrical events. His book Theatrical Events. Borders, Dynamics and Frames highlights the significance of “understanding theatre performances as aesthetic-communicative encounters of a wide range of agents and aspects. The Theatrical Event concept means not only that performers and spectators meet, but also that the specific mental sets, backgrounds and cultural contexts they bring in, strongly contribute to the character of a particular event.”
In the case of the Sugar Show, how does each of the panelists personal experiences and the way that the contest is organized as a whole shape the outcome of the event? For example, halfway through the second piece as I am hunched over frantically taking notes, I was filled with anxiety about the possibility of breaking the lead on my pencil. If this tragic event had occurred, I would have surely lost pace in a race to take constructive notes and would have ultimately felt disgruntled. It’s rather important to take good notes and give them to the choreographers. After I received my notes, the first two years, I read them diligently. I wanted to hear the feedback- this included comments like ” I didn’t like the piece with the chicken movement because it was weird”. Over all, feedback from the audience is extremely helpful. Interestingly, if you read the directions in the sheets handed out you found in the fine print that you were encouraged to Tweet any feedback to the artists during the pauses between pieces. A rather puzzling way to incorporate micro-feedback in the face of traditional performance etiquette, where you are instructed to turn off your phone.
If I didn’t have the time to write acute comments, would I eventually choose the winner by the last impression made on me? The bigger question then becomes, is the winner chosen simply by the imprint left on the panelists’ emotions? Of course this is not a novel question. It has been asked several times and we are all aware of it. During the post-performance discussion, a conversation ensued about how our ultimate experience in a performance event is a culmination of personal preferences and affinities towards conceptual or entertainment performances and the effect the work being presented has on us.
So what was my experience and how did it shape my decision? This year I noticed a considerable difference in the audience. Primarily that it was larger since the final night occurred at the Rose Wagner, which can sit +100 ticket buyers. The house was full. Not sold out, but close. Luminaries from the dance community were in the house. The first two years of the program, solely at the Sugar Space, I could hardly remember more than one professor from the University of Utah. This night, however, I noticed in attendance Linda Smith (Director of Repertory Dance Theater) and about three other professors from the University of Utah. This might not appear monumental, but it is a testament to Brittany Reese’s diligent work in developing and directing the program. In Salt Lake, though small, it’s challenging to regularly draw directors of companies and university professors to attend shows with emerging artists. The Sugar Show’s programming is gradually moving away from the fringes of the dance community to the center of the arts district. This is an excellent addition. The program will grow and, I am certain, one day have a $10,000 reward like the New York A.W.A.R.D Show it sprouted from. With Brittany Reese’s vision in tack, initial ground work and now SB Dance on board, the show will continue to be a great springboard for many emerging artists as well as a vital component of the local arts scene.
What of the work being presented? I feel as though the past three years of the Sugar Show have brought out the disambiguation of the purpose and future of emerging dance artists in Salt Lake. The presenting artists all had different movement styles and approaches to solving the age old question, “How do I make a dance?” If there’s anything that is certain, Salt Lake City does have a place for “cult” conceptual art. This is the term an audience member used to described his impressions for reason the audience and majority of panelists voted the way they did. He explained that Salt Lake City does like experimental and conceptual work. Which might hint in which direction my vote went, but because I was too busy trying to keep my short pencil from falling down as I took notes, in the end I just wanted some good ole’ effective entertainment coupled with athleticism and strong technique.
So what is the purpose of dance? It is whatever you want it to be and what it needs to be for you at any given moment. It just so happens that at the Sugar Show there are consequences to your wants and needs. It’s empowering and exciting to know that you took part in helping an emerging artist establish their name. Consequently, the other three choreographers go home dismissing the audience (including the panelists) for not having a true artistic aesthetic. It’s a normal reaction. There are emotions, time, money and futures involved. The makings of a great drama. For that select group of audience members that gathers once a year, they define dance.
Juan M. Aldape