Sunday, February 22, 2009

musings on discourse project

(what follows is my counterpost on the subject of last week's discourse project at counterpulse....all viewable on their blog....)

I've been dropping down in front of the tv lately since i came down with the flu. I've been trying to endure the spotty HD signal, looking for juicy news or entertainment but discovering over and over how dreary the pickings are without plug-ins to the great television transmission gods in the sky/ground.

ironically, making do has its rewards because i watch what i might otherwise pass up. last week i saw bill moyers interview parker palmer, for instance. Palmer is a man whose piety irked me but whose thoughtfulness was galvanizing, the founder of something called the center for courage and renewal. He specifically addressed the recent crop of newcomers to politics, people who shed their past disinterest or disillusion because of the obama campaign's careful and emotionally connected organizing strategies. the essence of the strategy was to connect individual stories to a larger purpose, then keeping that purpose alive. parker talked about the need as citizens for a constant dialectic between what is and what might be, between the material and ideal; without that, we fall into narcissism and cynicism on the one hand, and delusion on the other. in either case we end up out of touch with the flawed realities of everyday life and disconnected from the changes that can arise from leaps of imagination and belief in the future. my own metaphor for this is making a tortilla: on one side is the real and on the other the ideal. you have to turn the masa harina ball over and over, patting one side then another, until you have something that holds together and can nourish you.

i came away from the discourse project thursday knowing that the parker palmer/tortilla notion seemed to be missing from the house. Perhaps the dance community is still in need of a place and means to tell individual stories, because virtually every voice seemed to be engaged in a separate and private conversation. What struck me as unfortunate about this is that the days of complaining about not being covered or crowing about how much you don't care about being covered are so over. That conversation was robust 25 years ago, when the papers were full of music critics doubling as dance writers (some of them quite good), the Bay Guardian and the other weeklies were yet to cover dance regularly, and no one much liked what was written about them but still desperately needed to be reviewed to qualify for grants or to gain a footing in the community among other dancemakers. Complaining actually had some traction, but even then only a little. Now, the problems are more stark and, in a way, more interesting. Rachel is a strong dance advocate, and although she isn't, as Paul Parish has noted, given the leeway to do the job she might do, she still makes a silk purse out of a sow's very small ear. She helps drive attention to dance from people close to and far from the art's inner circles, and this enhances the ecology of Bay Area dance culture whether the individual dancemakers feel the impact or not. The rest of us--Rita, Paul, Mary Ellen, Mike, Kitty, Janice, Aimee, me and others I don't even know of--each in our respective venues and in our distinct ways, attempt to do something similar. What distinguishes all of us from the past writers is we do it because we love dance and for little other reason. Certainly not the freelance pay, which is as negligible as it was 15 years ago. Some of us will write for free, simply because we need to.

Implicitly, some of those who spoke seemed to deny the importance of the shared or centralized conversation (despite being there to engage in it), even as some of those same people bemoaned being ignored by the press. Maybe the problem is how how we define the problem.

What I want to offer is that we think of an ecology of dance writing, a system that is complex, interwoven, and includes the generalist review down (or is that up?) to the esoteric phenomenological debates by philosophers on the nature of presence. We should be able to create a form that can hold and honor the myriad species of thinking and talking and writing about dance without having to diss one facet of the ecology. This might keep the collective from wrangling over false hierarchies and let us avoid the equally misbegotten divide between "real" dance writing and putatively inconsequential writing. The only inconsequential dance writing I can think of is the badly written and inarticulate stuff or the raving screeds that reveal the fractured mind of the writer. Dance writing is hardly new, but it only became worthy of academic study in the last handful of decades as the culture's relationship to the body and to women has changed. And some of the most exciting recent dance books are by choreographers and not by scholars. As wonderful as a lot of dance scholarship is, there is also scholarship that is wedded to theories that the other fields moved away from 20 years ago. Some writing is divorced from facts on the ground, making these works a form of intellectual gamesmanship that is hard to square as theory of dance practice or history. Sometimes dance and the body seem to be regarded as "unmarked" territory ripe for "inscription" the way the Brits regarded the desert lands of Arabia.

Dance reviews create a vital historical record--someone was actually there, strived to describe what happened and by whom and why or why not it matters. At its best it is to dance what participant observation is to anthropology. It may not lead the discipline into juicy self-assessment, and it may not be a distinct art form, but I think that it remains vital to the ecology of the whole. It asserts that the cultural phenomenon needs and deserves to be noted. As Rachel alluded to, book reviews inform us of books many of us feel we ought to hear about, even if we have no intention of reading them. That's my relationship to science. I want to know about stem cell research, or genetics and race debates even though the last science class i took was chemistry in high school and I don't know the difference between cytosine and thymine. I read Jill Johnston in the Village Voice when I was a teenager about the downtown NY dance scene even as I schlepped to ballet classes. I looked forward each week to what she had to say because in her writing I found an inventive, iconoclastic and highly personal voice for a world view and a way of being that i was struggling to find for myself. I also learned what Trisha Brown's climbing the side of buildings looked like (even though I never witnessed it in person) and what Meredith Monk's work was about, and this was long before I saw either artists' work.

A healthy dance ecology would embrace as many modes and vehicles for discussing, noting, notating and responding to dance as possible. We need the critic, the memoirist, the historian, the diarist, the practitioner and the scholar. The internet can incubate all kinds of dance writing; good quality daily/weekly monthly journalism should continue to be among them.

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Anonymous said...


Elise said...

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