Posted: January 26, 2011 Filed under: contemporary dance | Tags: alternative art, Anything less is less than a reckless act, Donna Miranda, indie, The Lovegangsters
Our arbitrary associations to history and its relative authority in the pursuit of predictability can sometimes leave behind a bitter aftertaste of disgust, even discontent and anxiety similar to bouts of insecurity that visit any creative process. The consequences of which are rarely documented, nor reconsidered until much later when hindsight is already mute and inconsequential–the moment when history is already written with or without objections. The consequences of which are often overlooked in favor of the magnanimous reputation of artistic genius. Or not, such as the case of the ‘alternatives’ who have haphazardly earned a place among the emergent by the sheer claim of marginality; conveniently manipulating its very charm and political correctness. One that, frankly speaking, borders on nothing else but excessive self-aggrandizement even on indulgent un/necessary confessionals that the public secretly clamors for and hesitantly rejects. Only now, unlike then, confessions can no longer rely on a foolproof idiot’s checklist of transgressions so neatly categorized according to an accurate nomenclature.
Not that things are more complex, nowadays, nor are they any simpler, but the numbing tolerance for plurality bestowed upon us has itself given us the precious impotent capacity to take sides. Free will is freely sold at a cheap price, if not practically free, like those consumer-friendly promo stints that make us believe in the auspicious timing of cash flow.
But there is of course nothing more gratifying and daunting than freedom. And pleasurable than indulging its possibility, (despite) knowing its impossibility. More so now, with the timely change of what many deem as a respectable government laden with the empty hope for a better if not at least, a nearly decent future. Still, what is it that really transpires when one is given the freedom to choose freely? How much of this freedom do we actually exercise or are allowed to exercise? To pose this question is almost cheeky, nostalgic, irreverent and surely irrelevant; leading to either irrational emotional arguments or a sober dead-end. So are we really free or free only insofar as the options made available to us?
The freedom to choose must have been the most beaten theme in human history and artistic actions co-opted either by propagandist claims or crass commercial liberalism. Yet it is easy to miss that any artistic process whether created in the isolation, as in the typical image of an artist-idiot savant locked in his studio or when appropriated by more relevant social agendas involve the same process of weighing—of making decisions and foreclosing other “creative options.” The theater is about making decisions; beforehand during the production of the work or in the production itself, re-enacted every minute exactly the way it was.
This was exactly the crucial point of Anything Less is Less Than A Reckless Act; to strip down the spectacle of a dance or theater performance into one of the most basic elements of creation – making and enacting choices. While it may immediately seem that continuing to ponder on theater and performance, and its machinery may be a tad to dull, stubbornly solipsistic or even a bit out-dated, watching and enjoying contemporary performances require a level of understanding how the operations and procedures are communicated to the audience and even the artists themselves, rather than further mystified.
But perhaps before proceeding, a haphazard but diplomatic estimation of performance and performance-making strategies current in Manila is in order, even if only provisionally, and even at the risk of oversimplifying overlaps in stylistic tendencies and historical agendas. Generally speaking there are two orientations that exist in the Manila performing arts landscape. The first one, which is the dominant stream of performance practice, is quite easy to recognize, not only are they more common, easily accessible and visible, but they do not demand much from the audience. It is enough to sit and be entertained. It’s quite simple: the choreographer or dancer gets an idea or inspiration, tinkers around with it “creatively,” translate it into some aesthetic/artsy dance or movement sequence with a few acrobatics (of course) typically accompanied by music done by a local composer or as in more often the case, by an easily comprehensible piece of music either a drum-and-bass or electronica-inspired,21st century hit classical music or indie-alternative pop songs. The former is almost always the default preference, as is the easy one too, simply because no further textual and contextual work is necessary as the lyrics are conveniently weaved into the choreographic work. Fancy lighting design is also added in to complete the aesthetic experience.
The other orientation, which lies along the margin, seems to veer toward the more didactic and pedagogic, and often misconstrued as alienating, boring, “we can do that too” non-sense. Here the performance space is immediately seen as loaded with political, ideological and historical contexts that need to taken apart and examined. In such performances, the power relationship between the audience and artists are challenged, investigated if not amplified. Most of the time there is not much spectacular action happening (though not often the case). In some situations, there is only silence or minimal music, some talking, and direct confrontation and communication with the audience. These performances problematize how the distribution of significations and meaning is distributed between the viewers and doers. Here the magic of the theater is stripped bare to its possible minimum. Not much costumes, no acrobatics, simple clean lighting if ever at all. A single idea is persistently explored and often the procedures of artistic production are exposed to the audience and demystified.
Now, surely both kinds of performances offer specific experiences that should not be compared with each other. And even not all artists are self-conscious to make deliberate steps towards aesthetic orientations. But sometimes during the process one has to learn to pick a side, pick a direction and pursue it full stop because the integrity of any artistic and creative process lies in the capacity to make decisions and persistently commit to it until the end, even if the end may seem to be a failure, even if one already thinks they know what will happen.
Moreover, there is no way to say whether a right or wrong decision has been made because perhaps there are no right or wrong decisions which the audience in our last show Anything Less Is Less Than a Reckless Act*, soon had to realize. Even they had to concede to the possibility that there are no right and wrong decisions, only corresponding consequences and risks. And that decision-making is not a matter of choosing what is right or wrong but deciding which risks we want to take; which ones we could stand to live with at the present moment while foregoing the anticipation of the future. The moment of performance after all takes place not on the stage, neither inside the hall where the lecture unfolds but in the irreducible gaps of perception, in the actuality of the event, and in the possibility of experiencing different kind of connection and disconnection. The real performance is not the ‘product’ that we see in front of us but in, what I shall borrow from choreographer Xavier Le Roy’s work, ‘product of circumstances.’
* Anything is less than a reckless act is a solo lecture-performance project produced by The Lovegangsters and presented in cooperation with the French Embassy in Manila at PETA Theater Center, 15 June 2010.
Posted: January 17, 2011 Filed under: contemporary dance
photo credit: Mervin Espina
The insistence to call dance work necessarily begs the unavoidable interrogation of the aesthetic appeal of dance. A move that is far from innovative but only near ambitiously progressive and constructive. Proposing a recreational nitpicking of the modes of production and distribution of sensible intensities of the body on stage and in the everyday. A move immediately petty but still overlooked. A move that invites a retrospective disclosure of the informal networks operating within the performing arts. A move, somewhat annoying in so far as what need is there to say that doing is work. A move that is boring to a point of hysterical. A move that strips dance of its affective quality and romantic autonomy, which should dangerously lead us to destabilize the awkward distance of art from entertainment. A move that is satisfactory in so far as public interventions are becoming vague career moves. A move that is fresh but sometimes too trendy. A move that dares to abandon the particular and say that dance is “no more than an empty emblem.” Which is to say that it is no different from the pleasure products and services we consume to pass off time or to give us a gratifying moment of relief from habit. Such that it is subject to the same system of exchange and transactions that we reserve for all things material except art.
The insistence to call dance work is necessary in so far as any activity that offers amusement is ‘the prolongation of work.’ Those pleasurable relaxing weekend breaks, illicit love affairs, nomadic backpacking adventures, summer getaways, momentary breaks from the dullness of routine, improvisatory excursion in public commuter sites are meant to provide the vital rests in order to work again.
The insistence to call dance work is a baggage that has to be neatly unpacked by those who have chosen to practice it beyond their adolescence and making careers out of it. Beyond the cute, little pink tutus that crowd the proscenium stage every passing of summer recitals. Beyond the decorative artificiality of arabesques and pirouettes, so earnestly learnt and mastered. Beyond the virtuosity of malleable and flexible bodies dancing around physical barriers in site-specific performances. Beyond the display of love for dance, which breeds the exploitative rationale for being paid less. Beyond the spur-of-the-moment reactionary tendencies to burst open the seams of theater, as if the formal space of the theater were not porous enough to produce interesting anomalies worthy of exploration. Unfortunately, not far from our corporate yuppy counterparts working their asses off everyday riding the train, we have to concede to the same routinely discipline of work. Because dance is not exempt from ideology, nor governed neither outside of social phenomena, nor devoid of geopolitical presuppositions, and no dance is not completely free.
And hence it demands that clarity and some form of even tentative organizational frameworks be laid down. That is if an environment for art practice that matters is to be achieved beyond the occasional and fleeting traces left by performances, no matter how kick-ass they are. It is about time that the consequences of individual choreographic incursions into the real world be made accountable for their propositions of engagement. Otherwise, a retreat into the safe confines of the theater should immediately be drawn up. And yes, this is an unfair expectation. Expectations are made precisely because they have to be surpassed. If change is truly to be achieved, stakes have to be raised, sometimes at the cost of losing face.
The community of contemporary dance practitioners indeed raised the stakes by going out to the streets with the much talked about Moving Dance LRT Dance Express. Dancers and choreographers alike came out of the comforts of their studio, minus the comfortable experimental frame of the theater, sans costume, sans make-up, sans their dance personas to spread the word of dance among ordinary riding public on the fitting occasion of International Dance Day celebration worldwide. Donning ‘ordinary’ clothes seemingly conspicuous at first, they filled the otherwise bane cold environment of the train station with their impassioned and sweating bodies. No it was not an ambush, far from an ambush, despite the seemingly ambush-like quality of a haphazardly organized improvisation jam. In fact the event was closely coordinated with the LRT Administration who expressed enthusiasm for the Contemporary Dance Network’s proposal to infect the train. And why not! Anything to go against the grain is welcome, summer was a time to break free and Philippines election time is no stranger to strange occurrences.
Here was free reign. No entrance or exits, no rehearsals, no methods of work, no set steps, no set choreography, no procedure, no proscenium stage, no clear audience area, no constraints, no costume change, no faltering technical cues, no lights to find yourself into, no tedious frustrating marketing of tickets, no illusion, no appearances, no director, no lighting designer, no stage manager, no front of house reception, no definite roles, no regulating mechanisms, no schema, no expectations, no bureaucratic theater operations, no checks and balances, and no accountability.
The LRT Dance Express defies any way of evaluation or appreciation precisely because it did not set one. And here lies its cleverness, surely to the frustration of a reading spectator. It was foremost not for the consumption of a discerning spectator. Interestingly despite its attempt to bring dance closer to the public the public is lost because there is no space for them; the public is merely an accidental element in the whole thing. Why? Why, because the dancers willed themselves to dance in an almost ritualistic action reminiscent of summer solstice where the public truly became spectators watching in awe, in fascination, in disbelief, with barely any time to consume and process what was happening. The potential to create more meaningful connections that is paradoxically allowed in conventional theater and dance performances was lost, lost to the throngs of bodies eager to move, eager to impress and sweat out whatever was interior to them.
If laborers are entitled to a labor day, to give cognizance of their efforts to keeping us all afloat, what the local celebrations of International Dance Day proposes is a working-day out for dancers. Why not? Everybody needs a break!
[This essay was first published online on Philippine Online Chronicles under the title Barely An Ambush, 20 May 2010, http://www.thepoc.net/thepoc-features/metakritiko/metakritiko-features/6874.html]
Posted: January 17, 2011 Filed under: contemporary dance | Tags: Cultural Center of the Philippines, Fame the movie, philippine contemporary dance, post-Marcos, spectator
Now having settled on the initial discomfort of watching, it remains to be further pricked upon why the insistent demand of distance as a strategy to sustain curiosity, when there are hints at constructing a deferential, provisional, even bureaucratic detachment of self or suspension of judgment.
The need is of course not so obvious, given that Manila is – no Berlin, or New York, or Vienna, or Amsterdam – a cosmopolitan schizoid not urbane enough to let go of its post-Marcos guilt and parochial artistic concerns. Any discussion about art and culture will almost always induce those dirty words: Filipino, identity, social responsibility, history, gratitude, etc. Not enough art exhibitions or contemporary performances challenge our comfortable, parochial minds. Neither do we have any festivals that force us to re-examine the experience of watching apart from merely judging a piece of work as good or bad.
Despite the growing practice of art outside the cultural center, most of which are merely reactionary, the values attenuated on art still hinges on the age-old patronage system.
Nothing wrong here really; the performing arts practice in the country is after all premised on patronage system pretty much until now. The cavernous Cultural Center of the Philippines building is reminiscent of Rockefeller Center, an elite secondary school for the performing arts patterned after the famous Hollywood flick Fame: dancers coming from privileged families from down South, scholars sent by rich people to study abroad, all dressed up pretty and nice performing at benefit dinners. These dancers are idealized as glamorous, beautiful, ephemeral, poster images on magazines and dailies, and the body brutally molded to idealize the human condition if only as reactionary response to all of the above.
Again, nothing wrong here except that it’s boring, staid, and uninteresting. It perpetually reinforces the deceptive conception of art as something that should be breathtaking and beautiful, and therefore alienating. Alienating in so far as the thing remains far from us. Should we accept this premise then there is nothing left for us to do but slip back into the passive consumption of a performance. Within such a setup, this ranting could might as well be taken to the privacy of backstage dressing room talk.
Whether it is even productive at all to discuss how dance has lagged behind contemporary thought is probably not as important as appreciating our place in it as viewers or spectators. A performance is never complete/d without the complicit imbalance of power between performers and its spectators. And this premise need not be taken seriously (no matter how jolting it may sound) but humorously and constructively. Should we consider a performance as a construction rather than a “way of imitating reality or expressing states of the mind,” then its completion rests not in the reality of the dancers sweating their guts out but within our imaginations and how it subtly affects the way we see (our) bodies. In fact, this is why we watch, we like the distanced vulnerability of watching something unfold while experiencing a connection to it, be it emotional, physical or intellectual, without having to risk so much.
But distance is also risk, more so for the artist drawn to guard the meaning of their work. They hold of on impulsive creative decisions and instead modestly maintain the empty potential of the stage – a site where significations are not only contested but also stripped bare of their necessity. Instead they have to illustrate the obvious, such as the frame of the theater (notwithstanding its ideological and historical baggage) and the ‘performance event,’ the body and its organization, the choreographed assignments of who is watching and who is doing, the performer and the spectator. Paradoxically, the performer-maker or author is left impotent, castrated. Their function is left to merely establishing a situation or pretext for an ‘activity ‘ to take place, which is the performance itself — a performance that includes both spectator and performer.
So what makes a performance contemporary or what makes watching contemporary? What makes for contemporariness is perhaps not simply the content of a work, no matter how sociologically loaded or relevant it is to the times, or in how innovative the gestures we witness onstage. The way it resists the fascist tendency to represent the abstract into form or inscribe some notion of the human condition on the emotional expression of a dancer’s body, yet paradoxically keeping the tension in the way things are. Performing involves a negation of an act in order to communicate something transparently outside of the body.
Detachment is necessary if only to effectively slide into that critical zone of doing and looking at the same time or what Joao Fiadeiro refers to as “protecting myself from what I want.” Why take this risk? We can take this risk precisely because the stage is safest place to, because we are distanced away from it.
[this essay first printed online by Philippine Online Chronicles at http://www.thepoc.net/thepoc-features/metakritiko/metakritiko-opinions/5264-the-half-truth-and-half-lie-about-watching.html, 25 March 2010]
Posted: January 17, 2011 Filed under: contemporary dance | Tags: Airdance, Ballet Philippines, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Donna Miranda, Pasinaya, philippine contemporary dance
photo credit: Sam Kiyoumarsi
Wearing the pants or wearing the role is no guarantee that the obvious has clearly been stated. This is because observations of the obvious are too easily dismissed as useless, for the very reason of banality, or being too easy. Even the act of mimicry accedes to certain ideological and historical baggage, that are often overlooked precisely because of their anomalous absence onstage, too deeply imprinted to become unnoticeable. But no naiveté is naïve enough to discount the probability of reason behind, or reasonfor and reason underneath. Almost always, an ontological admission occurs to enact procedure, even if it were unconsciously made. Even self-reflexivity or transparency, almost near absent from the impassioned local performances we see occasionally, is not exempt of agenda, whether it is obvious, self-reflexive or implicit. Sometimes the agenda is disclosure itself. Even if the mirror in the dance studio, the first encounter of approval, guarantees the strict visual adherence to form.
The most obvious in dance is nothing but the dance. So there you go, any attempt at appreciating dance from the lens of even the metaphysical has to concede to its object (and subject). A teacher once said that dance will always be abstract and probably she is right. No matter how much reference to cultural history, popular culture, fragmentation of social order, the mobility of the body, the transience of time, the eloquence of nature, the strength of the female, the frustration of love, post-colonial diaspora, the need for change, anxiety of displacement, the battle of good over evil, the frailty of ambivalence, the fusion of tradition and contemporary, the loss of innocence, nostalgia for the ancient, hope for the disillusioned, the struggle of the poor and disenfranchised, and the search for identity and authenticity is made they will just all have to take a back seat. One can take any kind of dance/ing, or set of intricate movement patterns and situate it in any of the varied contextual readymade options, place some appropriate title and you have a piece — a work that masks form for content and meaning. Or in Barthes speak, the death of the referent, what survives is not the dance, but the signifying relevance we put into dance. Has the dance, or movement then become merely an excuse, subsumed by the bigger agenda of meaning or process?
This can happen of course. And is this not a mark of contemporary, reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade or even of Damien Hirstwhere title frames the work, much more important than the actual object? The latest offerings of Airdance and Ballet Philippines for example, or even the last Pasinaya Open House Festival at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, featured a wide array of dances that almost all looked the same, felt the same, sounded the same, moved the same only varying in title, costume, music, and casting. Where difference is a matter of short-circuit tactic pointing out the minimal as if.
So where do we start? How do we appreciate dance? The answer to the first is provisional; there is no satisfying answer to what dance is, neither is there a satisfactory answer to what art is. There are observable aspects of dance that choreographers like Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe, Hooman Sharifi, Anne Therese de Keersmaeker and many others, even scholars like Rudolf Laban have tried to break down: time, space, inertia, energy, momentum, lines, point, shape, volume, density, and rhythm. How do we know if it’s good or bad? We never do. It’s not even important because watching is less an exercise in judgment than reading. How do we appreciate it? We don’t, we just read.